"Communities, Disaster & Change" is a traveling exhibition coordinated by the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive, in Valdez, Alaska. It provides a twist on the fiftieth anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake commemoration through its connection with other communities and other disasters. The exhibit will travel around the state as well as to Oregon, and Hawaii. The full travel schedule and complete online gallery of the exhibit can be seen here.

This blog serves as a place to host a global conversation about the indomitable nature of the human spirit and communities' reactions to change, how they survive disaster and how they rebuild for the future. We hope this can be a tool for people like you, all across the world, to reach out and share your stories on survival and the will to carry on.

If you have seen the exhibit whether online or in person we want to know your reaction to the work of these twenty-eight Alaskan artists. Please join us in an ongoing conversation, and chime in with your thoughts, views and your personal stories of your community, disaster, and change.

14 January 2015

1964 Retold Through the Eyes of S.S. Chena Crew Members

Early 1900's Image of Valdez City Dock
The VMHA received a donation retelling the events surrounding the Good Friday 1964 earthquake that struck old town Valdez. The account is retold through the perspective of crew members aboard the S.S. Chena, the 441ft Alaska Steamship Freighter. The S.S. Chena was tied to the Valdez dock at the time of the earthquake. Often families would go out to the pier when the steamships arrived to receive candy and fruit. During the earthquake there where approximately 33 people on the dock greeting the Chena. All of them died. A large tsunami wave crashed over the S.S. Chena, the Valdez dock and the town of Valdez following the earthquake contributing to their deaths.

Below is this account.

March 27th, 1964, aboard the Chena looking back at town from the water, one crew member, Dorney, recalls “I saw buildings starting to collapse. The dock went down. The earth just opened up and swallowed everything! The causeway (leaning toward town) opened up 40 ft, longshoremen on shore turned and ran towards the remains of the dock. A fissure opened between them and the dock, they all went in 15 or 20 of them, I’d say. It was horrible." Dorney could still see two children to whom the crew had given oranges before the earthquake and tidal waves. They were running up the dock. One fellow picked up one of the youngsters and was pulling her along. They all disappeared. Dorney said "The Chena rolled over about 45 degrees into a large whirlpool. Three men were spinning around in the huge pool. Two went under right away. The other was floating on a piece of roofing. It swallowed him, too. The ship washed in sideways – in to where the dock had been.”

“Arne Kvarnberg, an able-bodied seaman, ran from his room and looked to shore. Everything was haywire. People were running. There were big holes. Then there were no people. Everything – everybody – disappeared. A warehouse went down with a big bang. The ship listed heavily to port when the tidal wave caught us. We hit the corner of the warehouse and the Antenna (from the warehouse) landed on deck. Then we went up in the air and got tossed around. Once I was looking at the bottom of the bay. The water was all gone.”

Leighton, a crew member, recalls “It all started with a light shaking. Then it shook harder and harder. I looked out on the pier. Guys, maybe 30 or more were running out of the warehouse. I thought there might have been an explosion in the warehouse. About two-thirds of them got into the dirt part of the causeway, trying to get up to town. The ship was going up in the air – Boom – Boom – BOOM! Like a rough elevator. I could look over the side and there was no water. We were way up in the air. The men on shore disappeared. There was one guy left in the hole (fissure) scrambling to get out. You should have seen the look on his face. People in town said the ship went so high they could see underneath it. All this happened in slow motion. People, buildings, everything went down the hole. The hole was full of pilings and rubble.”A wave came in and took everything else.” “Leighton could not explain how the Chena broke loose.” “I think God tore us loose. We were so high that when we slammed down again the ship should have been busted in half. We hit like a load of bricks. After this all of Valdez was on fire.”

Kenneth Wiper, Chena crew member, told his parents, “I saw a lot of misery. I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never seen anything as terrible as that…people losing their lives in front of you. Everyone on the Chena was calm through it all. It happened so fast there was no time to get excited. But I don’t think I could go through it again.”

The Seattle Daily Times – April 4, 1964

When retelling the Good Friday 1964 earthquake story we do not often enough describe what it must have been like to have a front row seat to so much devastation. Some crew members aboard the Chena were lucky to survive though they must have felt horrified and helpless not being able to do anything while their friends and family were killed in front of there eyes.



  1. horrible. There is a movie of the event in Valdez. If you ever visit the town, you should stop and watch it.

  2. Saw the movie at the museum in Valdez. No on seems to know whatever happened to the SS Chena after the earthquake!

    1. The Chena continued service with the Alaska Steamship Co. until 1971 when it was sent to Taiwan to be scrapped.


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