‘We saw a vehicle tumbling up the river’: Sproat Lake man remembers ’64 Alberni tsunami


Bob Cole was 17 years old on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, the night Port Alberni would change forever.

“I looked down to where I worked at the foot of Argyle and saw this water and people standing around looking at it. I thought a fire hydrant had broken, and then realized it covered a whole block,” Cole told CHEK News.

Cole remembers every minute of it like it was last night.

He lived at Sproat Lake but went into town to drop off his girlfriend when he saw the water rising.

Then he tried to make it home, but his car broke down on River Road right next to the water.

“When the car broke down on River Road about a block and a half away from here, we pushed it to high ground up Josephine across the little bridge,” he said.

“We came back down to the river, and I know it was dark, but it was light enough that evening to see that the river had almost gone dry, and that was between the first surge and then the big wave.”

Hours earlier, a massive 9.2-magnitude earthquake had struck Alaska, causing extensive damage and a tsunami that raced down the BC coast.

Houses were destroyed in Haida Gwaii, and homes were pushed off their foundations in Zeballos.

“By the time it got to Port Alberni, there was a first wave, which was approximately eight feet, and that notified residents that there was flooding from that. It notified residents that an event was happening, and the second wave came, and it was over 10 feet,” said Taimi Mulder, an earthquake seismologist at Natural Resources Canada in Sidney.

Cole remembers that second wave rolling in.

“Thunderous sounds of the logs and the booms and the wave coming up the inlet,” he described.

“Then we saw the fireworks from the substation shorting out, the transformers at the substation, and then we saw a vehicle tumbling up the river coming with the water and we ran for high ground.”

“Well, the most spectacular thing about the tsunami here in ’64 was that no one died and no one was even seriously injured,” said Ken Watson, president of the Port Alberni Maritime Heritage Society.

A local radio station reporter went back to the station and reported on what was happening live from the rooftop. His warnings and those from RCMP that a second wave was coming in 25 minutes likely saved countless lives.

Watson was the City Engineer when the Port Alberni Tsunami Warning System was installed in the 1990s.

“We were the first city in Canada to install one. We were the only city in Canada at the time that had had a major impact of a tsunami and that was the driving force of course,” he said.

Because they and experts know very well that the next earthquake could happen a lot closer than Alaska, giving area residents even less time to prepare.

READ ALSO: History of tsunamis on Vancouver Island explored in documentary

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