In the spring of 1946, five men stationed at Scotch Cape Lighthouse had reasons to be happy. World War II has ended. They survived. Their sole Coast Guard assignment on Unimak Island would end in a few months.
But the lighthouse tenders will never go home in the Lower 48. In the early morning of April 1, the ground was torn deep inside the Aleutian Trench 90 miles south. An enormous mass rose from the ocean floor, sloshing salty waters across the North Pacific Ocean.
The earthquake was gigantic, with a magnitude of at least 8.1. The tsunami killed 159 people in Hawaii, drowned a swimmer in Santa Cruz, California, struck fishing boats in Chile and destroyed a cabin in Antarctica. The Aleutian bend protected much of Alaska, but the five men at Scotch Cap stood no chance.
A 130-foot wave hit the lighthouse at 2:18 am, leaving nothing but the foundation of the reinforced concrete structure. Although scientists have long believed the wave was caused by an earthquake rupture, John Miller of the USGS in Denver has shown a mountain of rocks on the sea floor that appear to be from a massive underwater landslide. This slide may have created the giant wave that hit the lighthouse.
The story of Coast Guardsmen Anthony Beatty, Jack Colvin, Dewey Dykstra, Leonard Pickering and Paul Ness is 77 years old and on and off. On the Internet can be found a memo to his superiors written by Coast Guard electrician Hoban Sanford, who was stationed at the Unimak to maintain the radio direction finding system.
Sanford was reading in bed early on April Fools’ Day in a building on a balcony 100 feet above the lighthouse.
“I felt a strong earthquake,” Sanford wrote. “The building was groaning loudly. Things shook off my locker shelf. The duration of the earthquake was about 30 to 35 seconds.”
Knowing he was stationed on an island of turbulent mountains that includes the white pyramid of Chishalden, Sanford looked inward for the glow of a possible explosion. He only saw the stars.
Then, 20 minutes after feeling the first quake, “I felt a second, violent quake. This one was shorter (than the first), but harder.”
Minutes later, a wave hit Sanford neighborhoods.
“At 0218 hours a terrible roar was heard followed almost immediately by a very strong bang against the side of the building and about three inches of water appeared in the recreation hall and the corridor in the galley. … I went into the control room and … it broadcast a priority message that a wave The tides have hit us and we may have to leave the station.”
Sanford stepped outside. In the dark, he made his way to the edge of the hill above the lighthouse. He didn’t see any lights below. The fog was silent.
“The Light Station has been completely destroyed.”
At dawn at 7 a.m., Sanford and others descended from the hillside of Mandatory and attempted to tackle the nude beach image. The ocean calmed down, and it didn’t look different from any other day. Sanford wrote that the group searched the surrounding area.
“At the top of a hill behind the light station we found a human foot, amputated at the ankle, some parts of a small intestine which appeared to be from a human and what appeared to be a human knee cap.”
Three weeks later, while installing a makeshift navigation light, a technician discovered another body. Others gathered and recognized Paul Ness by his high cheekbones and goatee. Then the researchers found the right thigh and foot of another man.
These remains were collected in old mailbags and placed in a rough coffin. Ness’s body was placed in an individual coffin.
Three days later, before most of the men left Unimak on the Coast Guard cutter, the men buried their comrades. They were victims of a local “near field” tsunami caused by an underwater landslide, one of the biggest and most difficult to predict threats to coastal Alaskan villages during large earthquakes.
Alaskans have only minutes to respond to a near-field tsunami. Researchers at the Alaska Earthquake Center at the Geophysical Institute mapped tsunami risk areas here.
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