This Is Chance: Anchorwoman of the Great Alaska Earthquake

ROMAN MARS:
Hey there, beautiful nerds. Last week, a bunch of us from Radiotopia were on our West coast tour and it was a blast. The ‘Allusionist’ Helen Zaltzman and I hosted the show which featured stories from ‘Criminal,’ ‘The Memory Palace,’ ‘Mortified,’ ‘The Allusionist,’ ‘The West Wing Weekly,’ and ‘99% Invisible.’ For the 99pi live story, we went back to my favorite writer and musical collaborators, Jon Mooallem and in this incarnation, ‘The Brink Players,’ but you know them as members of ‘The Decemberists’ and ‘Black Prairie.’ Performing this story in front of a live audience was a privilege unlike anything else I’ve ever done and I couldn’t wait to share it with you. I hope you like it.

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1. PRELUDE

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

[audience cheers and claps]

ROMAN MARS:
It was the middle of the night on March 27th, 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 CHANCE:
“Are we on the air…? Yes…? We’re ready to go again.”

ROMAN MARS:
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 Juno somehow picked up that Fairbanks station, called a radio station in Seattle and let the broadcast play over the phone.

GENIE CHANCE:
“The boy scout troop that went overnight to McHugh Creek, Bill Noble would like to get a message if they are all right.”

ROMAN MARS:
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 the same woman’s voice.

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

ROMAN MARS:
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 Brink Players have her story.

2. MUSICAL OVERTURE

[Musical overture by the Frank Brink Community Players]

3. OUR TOWN

JON MOOALLEM:
In 1964, Anchorage was the fastest growing city in America. The generation earlier, it had been a frontier town without a single concrete building. Now it had 100,000 people, but it was mostly military buildup and oil speculation. The city felt like a bubble that could pop. Alaska had only been a state for five years and as one man put it-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“You had the feeling that everything is temporary. We weren’t all going to leave, but you know, we might.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And that insecurity made every new construction feel monumental – it was a bit more proof to people that their city was real – like the brand new JC Penney building downtown. This was one of the first big chain retailers to build in Alaska. It was huge and nothing said ‘sophisticated civilization rising out of the wilderness’ like a five-story department store full of lingerie and blenders. [music plays]

JON MOOALLEM:
There were the beginnings of genuine culture in Anchorage too, like the city’s all-volunteer symphony, conducted by a moonlighting bulldozer operator and the Anchorage little theater, the 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 officers – and he worked his actors hard. He just staged his own three-hour epic of Alaskan history called “Cry of the Wild Ram.” I know it sounds a little bit like “Waiting For Guffman,” but they were good. Meanwhile, covering all this life in the city were two daily newspapers and five local radio stations, one of them, KENI, prided itself on being-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“The biggest radio network in the biggest state in the union.”

JON MOOALLEM:
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 and she watched their three kids at home, but Genie loved radio, so she started working construction every morning in exchange for childcare, then go to work all afternoon at one of the local radio stations. Back then, women were usually made to cover cooking or fashion, but at KENI, Genie turned herself into a gutsy roving reporter driving all over Alaska with a mobile broadcasting unit in her car. She flew with smokejumpers, covered Arctic warfare exercises, reported from Inuit villages and crab boats. Her voice was part of the city. People trusted her, respected her in Anchorage — and in a way women journalists weren’t always respected in 1964. Later, a New York paper celebrated her as-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“An Alaskan housewife and mother of three children who does a man-sized job with a radio microphone.” [audience laughs]

JON MOOALLEM:
Late in the afternoon of March 27th, Genie was driving her 13-year-old son to a bookstore downtown. It was Good Friday and 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 theater. They were doing the Thornton Wilder play, “Our Town.” Curtain was going to go up at 8:00, but at 5:36… [music plays]

4. EARTHQUAKE

JON MOOALLEM:
Genie’s first thought when her car started bucking at the red light was that she must’ve 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 and separate and slam again. She watched them fold in and out and thought “It’s like a grotesque accordion.” 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. The huge ground waves moved through the asphalt like the roads were liquid. At the JC Penney building, a school kid stuck in the elevator watched a book suddenly levitate off the elevator floor and hang weightless in mid-air, in front of him. For a split second, it was like he was in orbit, and that’s when he knew the elevator was falling. The quake went on like this for almost five full minutes, then it stopped. And the instant it did, Genie threw her car into gear. [music plays]

JON MOOALLEM:
She was a reporter after all and still not realizing how severe the situation was, she raced to the 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-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Come quick! The Penney’s is falling down!”

JON MOOALLEM:
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. Jeannie stepped around part of a body in the snow, a person split in two by the falling debris. A Chevy station wagon was flattened, but she could hear a woman’s still alive inside calling to the crowd, trying to dig her out. Then, Jeanie rounded the corner, saw the whole impossible panorama. One entire side of Fourth Avenue that just dropped. For two blocks, everything was 12 or 15 feet lower in a ravine that had opened under half the street, and the crazy part was buildings were still intact down there. Cars were still perfectly parked next to their meters. Men looked up from outside a bar a dozen feet underground like stunned minors, and still hanging there over the street like a cruel caption over the surreal wreckage, was the theater banner that read “Our Town.” The quake had knocked Genie’s radio station off the air, but now the static on the transistor radio she was carrying suddenly gave way to music. It meant KENI was back. An engineer started talking and Jeannie grabbed the radio unit in her car and cut in.

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Go ahead, Genie.”

JON MOOALLEM:
She was surprised later when people told her she sounded calm.

GENIE CHANCE:
“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 MOOALLEM:
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. With the power out and snow falling through a thick fog in the dark, there was no way for everyone to tell just how badly their world had been jumbled. The feeling of vulnerability, total dislocation, it was hard to describe. This one guy put it-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“You don’t know if anyone else is alive. Maybe you were the last man.”

JON MOOALLEM:
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, she 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 rounded phone calls to her as the lines reopened. It was up to Genie to decide what information to relay to the public. At first, it was mostly just her. One KENI employee remembers that the newscaster who’d been on the air when the quake struck, a hotshot they just hired away from a big station in Los Angeles, had been so wigged out that the second the shaking stopped, he walked out of the building without a word. He resurfaced a couple of weeks later, calling from back in California to officially quit. And Genie was shaken too. A week later, she’d break down out of nowhere and weep all night. But now…

GENIE CHANCE:
“I kept trying to forget the unforgettable scenes I’d witnessed, thousands of terrified people were huddled in their unheated shelters waiting for words of reassurance and instruction.”

JON MOOALLEM:
So she started doing her job, talking to people on the radio. Before long, the rest of her colleagues and other stations in town were back working the airwaves too, but still it often 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 reading the personal messages pouring in too.

GENIE CHANCE:
“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 MOOALLEM:
So many people were desperate to locate or reassure each other.

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

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

GENIE CHANCE:
“A message to Kenneth Sadler. Mrs. Sadler is fine. A message to Walter Heart, Lee Heart is fine.”

JON MOOALLEM:
Meanwhile, HAM radio operators were relaying those messages to families in the lower 48. And when reporters around the country finally got through to Anchorage, it was often Genie, still sitting in front of her radio microphone, who took their calls. No, she assured them the city wasn’t swallowed in flames and no, it wasn’t under martial law. She talked to Omaha, New York, London. One interview she did was rebroadcast in more than a hundred other places the same day. Friday night had become Saturday morning, and then Saturday afternoon, Saturday night.

GENIE CHANCE:
“For the first 30 hours, I talked constantly.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And after two hours of sleep, she was right back on the air. [music plays]

JON MOOALLEM:
But it’s probably worth stopping for a second to say this out loud. Earthquakes are (BEEP) up, but I mean in an existential way too. Imagine how dreamlike it must’ve been watching realities suddenly buckle around you. Watching your city of infallible right angles bend. It was enough to change a person’s worldview. More than 50 years later, a former mayor of Anchorage told me-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Even now I can look at the solid ground out the window and know that it’s not permanent. It can change anytime. It just moves. Everything moves.”

JON MOOALLEM:
Understand that in 1964, plate tectonics was still just a theory, kind of a radical one. It was hard for people to accept that the continents we stand on are actually in motion, that we’re just sliding around randomly on violently colliding plates of rock, and that nothing is stable, that everything runs on pure chance. That’s what this story is about, really. Chance. Maybe that’s obvious, it’s even 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? But 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 the state of Alaska further out, crossing each other too, like a net. A kind of alternate human infrastructure snapping into place where the built environment gave way. [music plays]

[Montage of archival recordings over music crescendo]

GENIE CHANCE (ARCHIVAL TAPE):
“… Cordova, at the Northern Hotel. The message says your family has been contacted and everything is okay. I’ve been so involved trying to assist down here in the coordination of domestic service at the civil defense headquarters that I really hadn’t stopped to think how worried and concerned my parents must be. I understand that KFAR in Fairbanks is monitoring us and is relaying messages to the South 48. I wonder if the person in KFAR would take down a message from me and get the word to my family in Bonham, Texas that the Chance family is all right. The Chance family is all right. All five of us are safe, none of us received a scratch.”

6. WHAT IS SAFETY, ANYWAY?

JON MOOALLEM:
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. And the next day was Easter Sunday. Ministers talked about death and resurrection. The staff of the Anchorage Daily Times picked up all the pieces of movable type thrown all over their printing room, managed to put out a newspaper. Two JC Penney executives declared-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“We will build again, bigger and better than before.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And eventually, 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 a mass, there was never an empty seat, she 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, births – and how under all that flux, there’s 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, the character of the stage manager talked to the audience directly narrating the story of the play, kind of like I’ve been doing tonight. Now when the curtain rose on the final acts, he came out for his monologue and told them-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take them out and look at them 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 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 5,000 years, and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.”

JON MOOALLEM:
In the end, Genie chance stayed on duty at KENI for 59 hours that weekend. 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 and 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 CHANCE:
“We must be together. As long as we are together, we are confident of the future.”

JON MOOALLEM:
She explained to her parents-

GENIE CHANCE:
“That Good Friday night, I knew 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 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 MOOALLEM:
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’ve seemed so obvious to her. It’s a good idea to hold on to each other. Thank you.

ROMAN MARS:
Jon Mooallem, the Brink Players, Jenny Conlee-Drizos on accordion and piano, Nate Query on bass, John Moen on drums, Chris Funk on guitar, and Jon Neufeld also on guitar, and that is Ms. Avery Trufelman as Genie Chance. Thank you.

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ROMAN MARS:
99% Invisible was recorded at the Moore Theater in Seattle on the Radiotopia Live West Coast Tour. We were lucky enough to be joined in the audience by several members of Genie Chance’s family who came from Alaska and Texas to see it, which is why I nearly cried at the end of the story. We were directed by Lynn Finkel, post-production mixed by Sean Real, and Sharif Youssef. Words by Jon Mooallem, and music by the Brink Players.

Credits

Music

Music by the Brink Players:

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

  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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