‘You’re looking at death’


Sunday was the 59th anniversary of what is considered the world’s tallest tsunami, which occurred July 9, 1958, on remote Lituya Bay in Alaska, according to Geology.com (http://tinyurl.com/lituyawave). The enormous wall of water swept away vegetation from elevations as high as 1,720 feet, and millions of trees were uprooted and swept away.

Fortunately, the extreme wave height was only at the beginning of the event, which was set off by millions of cubic yards of dirt and rock, loosened by an earthquake, plunging 3,000 feet into the inlet on the east end of the bay.

Incredibly, there were some survivors who witnessed the event. William Swanson and his wife, on the Badger, were anchored in the bay when they felt the shaking. When the wave arrived, it carried the Badger stern first more than 80 feet above the tree tops and over a spit until the wave broke. They wound up hitting bottom, where the boat foundered. Swanson could see a huge amount of debris being carried towards them, so he and his wife abandoned ship in a skiff. Luckily, they were picked up by some fishermen about two hours later.

By the time the wave reached Howard Ulrich and his 7-year-old son, Sonny, who were anchored in their fishing boat, the Edrie, it was about 150 feet high. The pair are pictured now, and then (inset), in screen shots from a BBC interview. “It looked like just a big wall of water,” Howard said. “You’re looking at death, and this was exactly my first thought.”

“He threw me a life preserver and said, ‘Son, start praying,’” Sonny said.

As Howard pushed the engine to climb the front of the wave to the top, they were swept up over the land above the trees (where Howard thought they would surely land). Miraculously, they crested the wave, made it to the other side, and were washed back into the bay unharmed.

“God what an awful sight,” Howard recalled, “... something like the end of the world.”

Elleda Wilson is an editorial assistant for The Astorian and author of the award-winning In One Ear community column. Contact her at 971-704-1718 or ewilson@dailyastorian.com.