This Is Chance: Anchorwoman of the Great Alaska Earthquake

1. PRELUDE

ROMAN: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

It was the middle of the night, on March 27, 1964. Earlier that evening, the second biggest earthquake ever measured at the time—an insane 9.2—had mangled Anchorage, Alaska. 115 people died. Houses turned literally upside down or skidded into the sea. There was no light or power in the city and, for a long time, virtually no communication with the outside world. But there was radio:

GENIE: “Are we on the air?… Yes?… We’re ready to go again.”

ROMAN: It was a station in Anchorage, running on backup generators and a cracked transmitter. A station in Fairbanks picked up that signal and repeated it. And a man in Juneau somehow picked up that Fairbanks station, called a radio station in Seattle, and let the broadcast play over his phone.

GENIE: “The Boy Scout troop that went overnight to McHugh Creek…Bill Noble would like to get a message, if they are alright…”

ROMAN: Like that, a voice from Anchorage touched the Lower 48—a sign the city was still there. And soon, the degraded signal broadcast in Seattle was relayed and relayed again, until eventually, people across America, then around the world, heard this same woman’s voice.

GENIE: “We have word here that Mary Sweet is asked to contact her mother. Mother is at home.”

ROMAN: The president of that Anchorage radio station happened to be on a goodwill tour of Japan. And when he turned on a radio in Tokyo, he couldn’t believe it: It was the voice of his own “newsgirl” back home. The woman’s name was Genie Chance.

Jon Mooallem and the Frank Brink Community Players have her story.

2. MUSICAL OVERTURE

3. OUR TOWN

JON: In 1964, Anchorage was the fastest growing city in America. A generation earlier, it had been a frontier town without a single concrete building. Now it had a hundred thousand people. But it was a city largely built on oil speculation: a bubble that might pop. Alaska had only even been a state for five years, and as one man put:

VOICE/ROMAN: “You had the feeling that everything is temporary. We weren’t all going to leave, but, you know: we might…?”

JON: That insecurity made every new construction downtown feel monumental—a bit more proof to people that their city was real. Like the brand new JC Penney building. It was the first time a big chain retailer had built in Alaska. And it was huge. And nothing said ‘sophisticated civilization rising out of the wilderness’ like a five-story department store full of lingerie and blenders.

There were the beginnings of genuine culture in Anchorage, too. Like the city’s all-volunteer symphony, conducted by a burly bulldozer operator. And the Anchorage Little Theater, a community troupe run by a cosmopolitan guy in a turtleneck named Frank Brink. Brink found roles for everyone in his plays: housewives, judges, Air Force colonels. And he worked his actors hard, staging his own three-hour epic of Alaskan history called “Cry, the Wild Ram.” It sounds a little like Waiting for Guffman, I know. But they were good.

Meanwhile, covering all this life in the city were two daily newspapers, and five local radio stations. One of the stations, KENI, prided itself on being:

VOICE/ROMAN: “The biggest radio network in the biggest state in the union.”

JON: And one of KENI’s biggest on-air-personalities was a woman named Genie Chance.

Genie was 37. She’d grown up poor in Bonham, Texas then came to Alaska with her husband a few years earlier looking for opportunity. They only sort of found it, at first. He sold used cars. She watched their three kids at home. But Genie loved radio. So she started working construction every morning, in exchange for childcare. Then she’d go to work all afternoon at KENI.

Back then, women usually covered cooking or fashion. But Genie turned herself into a gutsy roving reporter, driving across Alaska with a mobile radio unit in her car. She flew with smoke jumpers, covered Arctic warfare exercises, reported from Inuit villages and crab boats.

Genie’s voice was part of the city. Everyone in Anchorage trusted her, respected her—and in a way women journalists weren’t always respected in 1964. Later, a New York paper would celebrate her as:

VOICE/ROMAN:“An Alaskan housewife and mother of three children who does a man-sized job with a radio microphone.”

JON: Late in the afternoon of March 27th, Genie was driving her thirteen-year-old son to a bookstore downtown. It was Good Friday; lots of people had already gone home from work for the Easter weekend. A banner across Fourth Avenue advertised that weekend’s opening at Frank Brink’s Little Theater. They were doing the Thornton Wilder play, “Our Town.”

Curtain was gonna go up at eight o’clock. But at 5:36:

4. EARTHQUAKE

JON: Genie’s first thought when her car started bucking at the red light was that she must have blown a tire. But then, through the windshield, she saw people knocked down in the street. She saw a line of parked cars at the gas station slam together, then separate, then slam again. She watched as they folded in and out, like a “grotesque accordion,” she thought.

Later, one man would say it felt like the earth was whipping the city around “like a dog shaking an animal he’s killed.” Buildings listed off their foundations. Ground waves moved through the asphalt like the roads were liquid.

At the JC Penney building, a school kid stuck in the elevator remembered watching a book suddenly levitate off the elevator floor and hang weightless in mid-air in front him. It like he was in orbit. And that’s when he knew the elevator was falling.

The quake went on like this for almost five minutes. Then, it stopped.

And the instant it did, Genie threw her car in gear.

She was a reporter after all. And still not realizing how severe the situation was, she raced to the city’s police station to get a quick story for the evening broadcast.

Inside, all the filing cabinets were thrown over. Ceiling plaster heaped on the floor. Then a second jolt hit and Genie’s son, who’d gone off, came running around the corner shouting:

VOICE/ROMAN: “Come quick! Penney’s is falling down!”

JON: An enormous concrete panel had shorn away from the JC Penney’s exterior and fallen. Now, the entire building was sagging. And, running over, Genie watched a second panel lurch loose and drop with a roar.

The scene was brutal: Genie stepped around part of a body in the snow—a person split in two by the falling debris. A Chevy station wagon had been flattened. But Genie could hear a woman still alive inside, calling to the crowd trying to dig her out. Then, Genie rounded a corner and saw the whole, impossible panorama:

One entire side of Fourth Avenue had just dropped: it was all thirty feet lower, in a ravine that’d opened under the street. The crazy part was, the buildings were still intact down there. The cars were still perfectly parked next to their meters. Men looked up from outside a bar thirty feet underground like stunned miners, still holding beers. And still hanging there over the street, like a cruel caption over this surreal wreckage, was the theater banner that read: “Our Town.”

The quake had knocked Genie’s radio station off the air. But now, she heard the static coming out of her transistor radio suddenly give way to music. It meant KENI was back on air. An engineer started talking. And Genie grabbed the broadcasting unit in her car and cut in:

VOICE/ROMAN: “Go ahead, Genie.”

JON: ..the engineer said. She was surprised, later, when people said she sounded calm.

GENIE: “It has become obvious that the earthquake that struck Anchorage less than an hour ago is a major one…We urge each and every one of you to seek shelter, check your emergency supplies and plan to keep your homes closed as much as possible so that you can retain the heat.…Check your neighbors, see if they have transistor radios. If they don’t, possibly they could move in with you and share one for the night. It seems like it’s going to be a long, cold night for Anchorage, so prepare to batten down the hatches and stay tuned to KENI.”

5. CONNECTOR

JON: Think of what it means when we say a person feels “shaken.” In Anchorage, this wasn’t a metaphor. The whole city had been thrown. There’d only been about an hour between the quake and nightfall. And with the power out, and snow falling through a thick fog in the dark, there was no way for people to tell just how badly their world had been jumbled. The feeling of vulnerability—of total dislocation—was hard to describe. As one man put it:

VOICE: “You don’t know if anybody else is alive. Maybe you’re the last man.”

JON: So it was comforting to hear another voice start talking to you—especially Genie Chance’s voice.

After making that first announcement on the air, Genie drove back to the police station. Authorities realized that, with the radio unit in her car, Genie was the only voice there able to address the entire city. So they told her to keep talking. Soon they got her broadcasting from inside the building, and routed phone calls to her as the lines reopened. It was up to Genie to decide what information to relay over the radio.

At first, it was just her. The KENI newscaster who’d been on the air when the earthquake struck—a hot shot they’d just hired away from some station in Los Angeles—literally walked out of the building when the shaking stopped without a word. He was stunned. And he didn’t resurface until a couple weeks later when he called from California to officially quit.

Genie was pretty dazed, too. Racing around, she’d seen the wreckage and shock on people’s faces up close. And a full week later, out of nowhere, she’d finally break down, weeping all night. But now:

GENIE: “I kept trying to forget the unforgettable scenes I had witnessed. Thousands of terrified people [were] huddled in their unheated shelters, waiting for words of reassurance and instruction.”

So she started doing her job: talking on the radio. Even as her colleagues and Anchorage’s other radio stations got back on the air, it felt like Genie was the one at the center of things, directing things. The turbine site needs diesel fuel, she’d say. Or here’s where electricians should report. And then, she started relaying the personal messages pouring in, too.

GENIE: “Mr. and Mrs. Dick Fisher are still here at police headquarters waiting for any word of their children…We have a message from Northwest Airlines, saying that the crew cannot locate stewardess Beverly Johns…”

JON: So many people were desperate to locate or reassure each other.

GENIE: “Howard Forbes would like it to be known that he will be at Mike Whitmore’s.”

JON: And Genie was helping those people shout across the fractured city.

GENIE: “A message to Kenneth Sadler: Mrs. Sadler is fine. A message to Walter Hart: Lee Hart is fine.”

Meanwhile, HAM radio operators were busy getting those messages circulating into the Lower 48. And when reporters around the country finally got through to Anchorage, it was often Genie—still sitting in front of her microphone—who took their calls. No, she assured them: the city wasn’t swallowed in flames. And no, Anchorage wasn’t under marshal law. One interview she did was rebroadcast in more than a hundred other places the same day.

Friday night had become Saturday morning by then. Then Saturday afternoon. Saturday night.

GENIE: “For [the first] thirty hours, I talked constantly.”

JON: And, after a quick break, she was right back on the air.

***

JON: It’s worth stopping to say this out loud: Earthquakes are f*cked up. But also, in an existential way.

It’d almost been dreamlike: Watching reality suddenly buckle around you. Watching your city of infallible right angles bend: It was enough to change a person’s worldview. More than fifty years later, a former mayor of Anchorage told me:

VOICE/ROMAN: “Even now, I can look at this solid ground out the window and know it’s not permanent. It can change anytime. It just moves. Everything moves.”

JON: Understand that in 1964 plate tectonics was still just a theory – and kind of a radical one. It was hard to accept that the continents we stand on are actually in motion; that we’re just sliding around randomly on these violently colliding plates of rock; and that nothing is stable; and that everything runs on pure chance.

And that’s what this story’s about, really: chance. Maybe that’s obvious; I mean, it’s the woman’s last name. But the question is, how are we supposed to live on the surface of such unbearable randomness? What can we grab hold of that’s fixed?

Well, when I hear the old recordings of Genie on the radio that weekend, and all the other voices working too, I picture them as solid objects. Like wires crossing the city of Anchorage, then Alaska, then further out. And crossing each other, too, like a net: a kind of alternate human infrastructure snapping into place where the built environment gave way.

[Montage of archival recordings over music crescendo]

GENIE: “You know, I’ve been so involved trying to assist here, that I really hadn’t stopped to think about how worried and concerned my parents must be. So, please, tell them the Chance Family is alright. And yes, we intend to stay right here. I presume we’ll be on the air 24 hours a day and I…I will stay here as long as I can be of service.”

6. WHAT IS SAFETY, ANYWAY?

JON: Late on Saturday, the day after the quake, Genie read a list of the missing and dead on the air. No one told her to do it, but there didn’t seem to be anyone to ask for permission, either.

The next day was Easter Sunday. Ministers talked about death and resurrection. The staff of the Anchorage Daily News picked up the millions of pieces of moveable type thrown all over their printing room and managed to put out a newspaper. Two JC Penney executives declared

VOICE/ROMAN: “We will build again—bigger and better than before.”

Soon, the Little Theater resumed its production of “Our Town,” too. One of the actors told me that, after the quake, whenever a restaurant in Anchorage reopened or a church held mass, “There was never an empty seat,” he said. “Everyone wanted to be with someone else.” And there was something especially poetic about the sold-out crowd at the theater that first night.

Because that kind of togetherness is basically what Thornton Wilder’s play is about: it’s a play about daily life in a small town—the deaths and marriages, tragedies and births. And how, under all that transience, there’s a stability to every community over time.

In Anchorage, a city that worried it was temporary realized it was temporary—at least, all its buildings and houses and roads. But it was discovering there was something permanent about itself, too.

All night at the theater, Wilder’s character of the Stage Manager talked to the audience directly, narrating the story of the play, just like I’ve been doing tonight. Now, when the curtain rose on the final act, he came out for his monologue and told them:

STAGE MANAGER/ROMAN: “Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take ‘em out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses, and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth. And it ain’t even the stars. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years, and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.”

JON: In the end, Genie Chance had stayed on duty at KENI for 59 hours that weekend. And when things finally calmed down, she sat down to write a letter to her parents in Texas. They’d written to her right after the quake, pleading with Genie to send her three kids to live with them, while that battered city up in Alaska figured out what’s next. Think of the kids’ safety, they said.

And part of Genie thought it was a good idea. But then she had another, more convincing thought:

GENIE: “We must be together.  As long as we are ALL together, we are all confident of the future.”

JON: She explained to her parents:

GENIE: “That Good Friday night, I knew that we had survived miraculously. And for this reason, there must be a purpose to our lives. Apparently, the children must sense this, too. For they have remained calm. They have been fully aware of the emergency, but THEY have not feared. We are proud that they are such dependable, responsible youngsters. I would not undermine their confidence in the future—in themselves—by sending them away for their safety.”

“What is safety, anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens. These children are not afraid.  Their father and I are not afraid. Please, don’t you fear for us.”

JON: What is safety anyway? Genie seemed to be conceding that there is only randomness—only chance. And if everything beyond us is chance, maybe the only force we have to survive a world like that is connection. By then, it must have seemed so obvious to her: it’s a good idea to hold on to each other.

Credits

Music

Music by the Brink Players:

Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Nate Query, Chris Funk, John Moen, Jon Neufeld

Comments (10)

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  1. anaisa

    thank you radiotopia and 99 percent invisible.
    for your being, for your service, for keep telling us stories.

  2. Deirdre

    We recently experienced a wildfire in our small mountain town of Gatlinburg, TN. The fire claimed 14 lives, injured 134, and burned 16,000 acres. My family lost their home of 34 years and barely escaped with their lives. In the aftermath, we weren’t scared or traumatized, we were together. This story echoed so many sentiments that my family continues to cling to 6 months after the disaster. Thank you for the beautifully told story. It moved my soul.

  3. B Hunt

    I’ve just caught up with this on the podcast and wanted to say that this is one of the most profound and moving works of art I have ever experienced, in any medium. Thank you so much to all of the 99pi team, the musicians and everyone else who contributed to this episode.

  4. Ricardo

    I am a huge fan of 99pi – this particular episode i’m not too sure about the background music – I can’t seem to take the story seriously because of it. Thanks for sharing

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