The rumbling shook the sleeping boy’s father from his fading half-sleep on the berth of their single-masted sailing boat. Bolting up and looking out the window, his eyes widened as he saw the still waters of the Alaskan inlet churn and rise into a monstrous, debris-strewn wave, easily fifty feet in height and heading straight toward their tiny craft. The father tossed a life preserver at the groggy boy and said, “Son, start praying.”
120 miles from the city of Juneau in the southeastern spur of Alaska, Lituya Bay cuts a fjord seven miles long but only two miles in width into the mountains and cliffs of the Fairweather Mountain Range, with steep and heavily forested walls to both sides. The still waters of the bay are largely protected from the ocean’s turbulent waves by a shallow sill running northwest to southeast across the mouth, 2/3 of which rises above the water to form a tree-lined breakwater peninsula; the remaining 1/3 allowing access around the right side with about 32 feet of depth to spare before deepening to the the bay’s overall depth of 720 feet. In the center lies Cenotaph Island, oval in shape and popular as a fishing escape, before the inlet terminates at the scar down the spine of the mountain range caused by the Fairweather Fault, resulting in two glacial side inlets that give Lituya Bay a distinctive ‘T’ shape.
Both inlets—Gilbert Inlet to the left, and Crillon Inlet to the right—are capped by relatively fast-moving glaciers, as glacier speeds go, each having moved roughly five nautical miles since first mapped in 1778. The glaciers’ speeds, combined with and aggravated by the steep walls and fault line, lead to a risk of rockslides along the bay. Furthermore, the five to ten foot tidal waters increase in intensity as they squeeze through the narrow and shallow mouth, like water through a hose nozzle, making for occasional large and fast waves, sometimes measuring as many as twelve knots. Lituya Bay had been struck by five giant waves in its recorded history, in 1853, 1854, 1874, 1899, and 1936.
By 10:15 p.m. on the night of July 9, 1958, the Alaskan summer light was just fading behind the high, scattered clouds, as three small fishing boats lay anchored in the bay, each about 40 feet long. Howard Ulrich and his eight-year-old son—named Howard Jr. on his birth certificate, but known simply as Sonny—had entered on board the fishing boat Edrie at about eight o’clock; they had fished and explored for a bit before anchoring at a cove on the southeastern shore, where Sonny had quickly faded into sleep. Bill and Vi Swanson had entered about nine o’clock on their boat, the Badger, and gathered some glacial ice at Cenotaph Island, before anchoring on the inside of the breakwater, at about a twenty five foot depth; they enjoyed dinner before changing into their nightwear and retiring to their berths for the evening. Orville and Mickey Wagner had just purchased the Sunmore months earlier, and were anchored near the mouth of the bay; they were friends of the Swansons, and waved hello across the water. On the beach right at the base of the breakwater, a group of eight or ten mountain climbers had been camping, but they had left about two hours prior. A flock of kittiwake gulls suddenly took flight and darted away, briefly startling the Swansons from their rest by bombarding the Badger with droppings.
The earthquake that struck at 10:16 p.m. measured roughly 7.7 on the Richter scale, lasted for three to four minutes—an extraordinarily long time for an earthquake—and split the ground into fissures; the mountains buckled like ocean waves, causing the trees to dance and fall, and the wildlife howled and panicked. Bill Swanson bolted out of his bed and looked toward the head of the bay; ordinarily, the steep walls shielded the inlets from sight at the front of the bay, but Bill could see the earthquake’s power as it raised the glacier into view, six miles away. “The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight," he later recalled. "It must have risen several hundred feet. I don’t mean it was just hanging in the air. It seems to be solid, but it was jumping and shaking like crazy.”
At the northeastern wall of Gilbert Inlet, a colossal block of rock and ice measuring roughly a half mile square and roughly 300 feet thick, cracked free from the sloping mountain and plunged 3,000 feet into the waters of the bay, causing a deafening crash. Dragging rocks, gravel, ice, trees, stumps, and untold volumes of dirt with it, the block and the debris looked “like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck,” in Bill Swanson’s words. With a volume of about 40 million cubic yards of dense, metamorphic rock, the force with which the rockslide impacted the waters of Gilbert Inlet was similar in ways to that of an asteroid, creating a massive wave with enough power to generate a vacuum in its wake. The force of water and air rushing to fill that vacuum essentially flung the water more than 1,700 feet up the opposing 45 degree slope, far beyond the previous flood line, high enough to wash over the spur, and more than eight times the maximum recorded height of any oceanic tsunami recorded by that time.
Shocked out of bed aboard the Edrie, Howard Ulrich made it to the window in time to see the water sloshing and splashing around the two inlets, before pouring down the main body of the bay. “It was not a wave at first. It was like an explosion, or a glacier slough. The wave came out of the lower part, and looked like the smallest part of the whole thing. The wave did not go up 1,800 feet, the water splashed there.” He watched as it rounded the corner of Gilbert Inlet and came into his view from the Edrie, silhouetting the trees on Cenotaph Island and racing at more than 100 miles per hour toward the mouth of the bay. Howard estimated correctly that he had about two minutes’ time before the wave reached him, his tiny boat, and his sleeping son.
After awakening his son and throwing a life preserver over him, Howard radioed the Badger and the Sunmore, warning his neighbors and saying that he was going to try and turn the Edrie to face the wave in an attempt to ride over it. He saw that as the wave swarmed around Cenotaph Island, it rose to about 100 feet in height, breaking on the opposite north side of the island but remaining smooth and rounded on the south, where he was. Howard tried using the shipboard winch to reel in the 64-pound anchor, but the mechanism stuck and refused to move. Running out of options, he instead released the jammed anchor chain to its maximum length of 210 feet, then tried maneuvering the Edrie to face the wave, while again radioing the other boats. “Mayday, Mayday. This is the Edrie in Lituya Bay. All hell has busted loose in here. I think we’ve had it. Good-bye.”
About a minute later, the smooth and rounded southern edge of the wave, by then measuring between 50 and 75 feet in height, picked up the Edrie, snapping the anchor chain “like a string.” Father and son held on as best they could, and watched as their boat was lifted into the air by the force of the water. Howard’s hopes of piloting the craft over the crest of the wave vanished as he realized that the wave was carrying the boat far inland; looking down, he could see the tops of trees beneath the hull of the Edrie, and he was convinced that they were about to crash horribly. As the wave roared past, however, it unexpectedly pulled the tiny boat back out from above the trees, depositing it back into the churning and clogged but level waters of Lituya Bay, with Howard and Sonny shaken but unhurt.
Meanwhile, the breaking northern side of the wave grabbed the Badger, snapping its anchor chain as effortlessly as it had the Edrie’s. The water rocketed the Badger—with Bill and Vi clinging inside—stern-first “like a surfboard,” high into the air, clearing the breakwater’s trees before crashing into the ocean with tremendous force. Uprooted trees then showered down on the Badger like a rain of javelins, one smashing through the windows and spearing Bill in the chest; the forced of the branches slamming him against the bulkhead before the turbulence sucked the tree back out as quickly as it had arrived. Immediately, the Badger took on water and began to founder; Bill and Vi, still in their night clothes, climbed aboard their eight-foot skiff and cast themselves into the filthy, churning water.
The last anyone saw of the Sunmore, it was heading at top speed toward the entrance to the bay. The wave swept over the boat, washing it and the Wagners from sight.
Howard and Sonny managed to pilot the Edrie back from their cove to the entrance to the bay. Twenty-foot waves still rocked the waters, with splintered trees and chunks of glacial ice the size of automobiles threatening to damage or sink the little boat. In the aftermath of the wave, Howard’s radio partner and fishing neighbor Stutz Graham, having felt the earthquake and witnessed the wave, piloted his fishing boat the Lumen from its berth farther up the shore; radioing Howard, he asked if his help was needed. “No, for Christ’s sake don’t come in here," came Howard's response. "Stay out.” After about a half hour, the water became relatively calm, and the Edrie limped out of the mouth of Lituya Bay at about 11:00 p.m.
Neither Howard nor Stutz knew what had become of the Badger or the Sunmore, so for the next two hours, they each took their boats out to make several trips through the hazardous waters, sweeping the surface with their spotlights in a search for their missing neighbors. Neither of the men saw anything but debris among the dark, congested water.
Bill, nursing four broken ribs from the impalement by the flying tree, floated along with Vi in their tiny skiff, hoping someone would notice them in the darkness, although they were nearly invisible amid the wreckage. Vi, overcome by the shock, had passed out, and the skiff had started to take on water. Bill was fading fast, along with their hopes of being discovered.
With Howard and Sonny resting, Stutz decided to make one last run. He piloted the Lumen back out into the water, and was just about to give up when he heard a faint cry in the darkness. Cutting the engine, he passed the beam from his searchlight across the wreckage, straining his eyes for any sign of life. His searchlight returned nothing, but as fate would have it, Bill and Vi’s tiny lifeboat drifted into a straight visual line of the Lumen, silhouetting their shapes against a faint light from the shore. Stutz gathered up the weakened couple aboard the Lumen, and made haste for the shore.
The search for Orville and Mickey Wagner continued until morning light, to no avail; the only evidence of their existence found was a small oil slick where the Sunmore had gone under. Rocks continued to fall from the fresh scar on Gilbert Inlet for a full day. After three weeks, plane travel was once again safe for the area, after which geologists began to study the area anew, as the wave had washed away all evidence of any of the previous waves.
The earthquake had permanently shifted the landscape of Lituya Bay, moving parts of the mountain range by three feet vertically, and forward by as much as 21. A cabin on Cenotaph Island and a lighthouse on the breakwater vanished completely beneath the wave, swept away along with their concrete foundations by the sheer force of the water. Howard and Sonny continued to fish, although Howard soon retired from commercial fishing. Bill and Vi made full recoveries, though Vi never went boating again.
Links and Sources:
Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay by Philip L. Fradkin, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001.
“Giant Waves in Lituya Bay, Alaska,” by Don J. Miller, US Geological Survey, USGS Numbered Series, 1960. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/pp354C
“1958 Lituya Bay Tsunami” on the Western States Seismic Policy Council web site, retrieved January 6, 2018. www.wsspc.org/resources-reports/tsunami-center/significant-tsunami-events/1958-lituya-bay-tsunami/
“Modeling the 1958 Lituya Bay Mega-Tsunami II” by Charles L. Mader for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the Science of Tsunami Hazards Journal, 2002.
“World’s Tallest Tsunami” on the Geology.com website, retrieved January 6, 2018. https://geology.com/records/biggest-tsunami.shtml
“Lituya Bay, Gulf of Alaska” by E.W. Eickelberg, US Coast and Geodetic Survey Field Engineers Bulletin no. 10, December 1936.
“Alaskan Super Wave – Mega Tsunami” from BBCWorldwide YouTube channel, posted August 18, 2008, retrieved January 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN6EgMMrhdI
Cover photo by Mike and Susan Molloy for the "Alaska 2009" blog at https://molloys2009ak.blogspot.com/2009/07/glacier-bay-flight-seeing-july-13.html.
Photo “Lituya Bay with Cenotaph Island in the Foreground” by user footsnviews on panoramio, available here. http://www.panoramio.com/user/1112127?with_photo_id=7405621
The map of Lituya Bay (and photos) from the Geology.com article.
Photo "Lituya Bay, Alaska" with fishing boat in water by Gary Luhm for Ursa Major Charters at http://www.myursamajor.com/wild-side-easy-by-gary-luhm/.
"Lituya Bay, 1958" © 2018 by James Husband