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'Still No Closure' for Chenega Survivors of ’64 Tsunami

By Grace Jang, Investigative Reporter, gjang@ktuu.com
Published On: Mar 27 2014 08:00:00 PM AKDT

Out of all the places that saw destruction from the 1964 earthquake, few were hit as hard as the village of Chenega. A tsunami some say was up to 90 feet tall crashed into the tiny village, destroying everything except for a few buildings. 

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A seemingly idyllic life existed for the Chenega tribe for 10,000 years until one fateful day in March, 1964 changed that forever.

For 10,000 years, the bounty of Prince William Sound sustained the people of the Chenega tribe. They settled on the southern tip of Chenega Island and called it the Village of Chenega, which means “beneath the mountain.”

“We played football on the beach, baseball, hide-and-seek,” said Paul “Timmy” Selanoff.

They had a school and a church, but no television or phone.

“You wanted to communicate with the outside world, you had to shortwave radio,” said Larry Evanoff.

 “A very good life,” said Selanoff. “There was nothing done by equipment. People shoveled by hand, carried water, chopped wood.”

For food, they relied on the waters.

“Dad used to say when the tide goes out, the table is set,” Evanoff said. “You had all kinds of clams, mussels, marine leaf sea greens that looked like lettuce. Just pick them up and throw them in the pot. It was very satisfying living that way.

 They also relied on each other. In 1964, the island was home to 78 people.

“We were isolated, but we weren't alone,” Evanoff said. “It was very satisfying to grow up like that.”

Then came Good Friday.

The community had planned to watch a movie, “The House on Haunted Hill,” later that evening at the school.

Selanoff, 12-years-old at the time, was playing with his brother on the beach.

“I was on the big boulders where I wasn't supposed to be,” Selanoff recalled. “Most of our elders said, ‘don’t go over there because it's dangerous; you're going to drown; you're going to get hurt.’”

Suddenly, everything began to shake.

“The boulders started bouncing like little bouncing balls and I was jumping on them,” Selanoff said. “Try to walk on Jell-O. That's what it feels like.”

Then came a deafening roar, Selanoff said, as he scrambled up the embankment.

“I always try to figure out how I got away from that big wave that fast on a bank that steep,” Selanoff said. He said a higher power protected him.

“I was in a little ball,” Selanoff said. “It was like glass. It stops all those things. That's what he did that day; stopped it. But I could look out there and I could see turmoil.”

The water came in three separate waves. He saw houses and boats smashed. He saw people running and struggling; people he knew.

“Brothers and sisters, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces,” Selanoff said.

At some point, he said, he passed out.

“I woke up saying the Lord's Prayer,” Selanoff said.

He awoke to complete destruction.

“I seen the whole village,” he recounted. “I seen the whole village just blasted up.”

What the people of Chenega had spent centuries building was gone within “three, four minutes of terror,” Selanoff said.

As he made his way down the mountain, a 12-year-old Selanoff called for help.

“Somebody answered me, and I just started going toward that voice,” Selanoff said. “Guess who I ran into? I jumped to my dad probably 15, 12 feet. He whispered in my ear, ‘Have you seen Buttons or Goula?’ Which are my brother and sister, which we lost. But I showed up five, six hours (later). They thought I was gone. I said, ‘No, I'm OK. Somebody took care of me. Powerful man.’”

Selanoff’s 3-year-old sister and 1-year-old brother were gone, along with more than a third of the village.

“We lost 26 of them,” Selanoff said. “I don't like to just say, ‘there's 26 of them,’ because we know every one of them, and it was very hard. I listened to my mom cry all night. I won’t ever forget that.”

Evanoff was hundreds of miles away, in a Wrangell boarding school. The 15-year-old got called to the principal’s office.

“He says, ‘Both your parents are gone, your uncle and aunt are gone,’” Evanoff recounted. “I said, ‘Why are you lying to me like this? Mom can't be gone. I just got a package from her in the mail.’”

Reality hit, he said, when he talked to aunts who confirmed the news.

“I spent two-and-a-half, almost three days up in the hospital,” Evanoff said. “That's how long it took me to get out of it. I felt very alone, very helpless, very useless. I felt like nobody wanted me. I was way down.”

Evanoff’s elders told him to finish out the school year, so it wasn’t until weeks later that the teen went back to what was left of his home of Chenega.

“Just being there for the first time, knowing so many people were not around anymore, it just paralyzed me,” Evanoff said. “I could hardly walk. Felt like my feet weighed a ton.”

Most of the bodies were never recovered.

“As far as mom and dad, they never did find them,” Evanoff said. “There was no closure. Still no closure. There wasn't a body or anything so that we can grieve over it and put it away properly. It still bothers me.”

The grief, Selanoff said, was crushing.

“After about a year-and-a-half to two years, my heart hurt so bad, I had to let it go,” Selanoff said. “It was hurting too hard. I asked God. I said, ‘No more. I don’t want it no more. Put it in your hands now.’”

Still, Selanoff said, he grappled with questions and played what-if scenarios.

“If it was a little bit earlier or a little bit later, everybody would have been up at the schoolhouse,” he said. “Only a few of them (would have) been lost.”

Selanoff wondered, too, why his loved ones had been taken and he had been spared.

“I was just totally lucky, but I was in the worst spot in the whole place,” Selanoff said. “I don’t know. Maybe he wanted me to talk to you today.”

Selanoff said he eventually settled on an answer that comforts him.

“I just figured he took all the good people,” Selanoff said. “They should be taken care of now.”

Evanoff said the feelings of helplessness and depression hit him anew every time he steps into the dentist’s office.

“The alcohol and hospital-type smell,” Evanoff said. “Whenever I smell that, it clicks back into my mind, because that's where I was (in the hospital) when I heard the news.”

Evanoff said he holds out hope that someday he will find some sign of his loved ones.

“Always looking for something that looks familiar,” he said. “And I won’t quit looking. One day, I'll find something.”

Decades later, Evanoff spearheaded the movement to relocate remaining Chenega residents to land about 15 miles south on Evans Island to what is now called Chenega Bay.

Every year, survivors gather at the original village site in remembrance of those lose on what they call “the day that cries forever.”