he crew of Scotch Cap Lighthouse on Alaska’s Unimak Island got a rude awakening on April 1, 1946. At 1:30 a.m. a strong jolt shook the five men from their bunks. Such disturbances were not uncommon in that region, as Unimak is the most seismically active of the islands in western Alaska’s Aleutian Chain.
A radio direction finder station sat on higher ground above the lighthouse. The watch stander there called the lighthouse, whose duty man reported, “I’d swear it raised the deck right under me.” He reported no major damage.
Twenty-seven minutes later the building shook again.
Little more than 20 minutes after the second shock, the log from the direction finder station reported, “Terrific roaring from the ocean heard followed almost immediately by terrific sea.”
On April 24, 1954, while spending the night at Scotch Cap, I read the handwritten log, amazed that the writer, in spite of the tragedy he’d witnessed, could still write legibly. The document went on to say that after sunrise crewmen from the direction finder station looked over the side of the island to find the lighthouse gone. The entry said they found bodies and body parts of the lighthouse men strewn along the rocky shore.
After reading the log, I walked to the edge of the bluff and looked down at the wrecked foundation of the lighthouse, approximately 40 feet above the ocean. The only reminder that a five-story-tall structure had occupied the site was shattered concrete with twisted steel reinforcing rods jutting out at odd angles. The destruction appeared more complete than from a direct hit by a tornado.
I found it an emotional experience to view the underpinnings of a once proud lighthouse – a shattered monument to the five fellow Coast Guardsmen who died eight years previously.
Records indicate an earthquake measuring 7.4 occurring in the Aleutian Trench, some 90 miles south of Unimak, fueled the fatal tsunami. Forty-eight minutes later, the giant wave raced up the side of the island, crushing the lighthouse and sucking much of the structure and its occupants into the ocean. One report indicated the wave reached areas 135 feet above the sea.
Almost six hours after the first seismic event, the Aleutian tsunami charged into the Hawaiian Islands, some 2,500 miles away, inundating areas as much as a half mile inland. A 55-foot tall wave destroyed the port of Hilo on Hawaii, while waves in the 30-foot range hit Oahu and Maui. The death toll reached 159 there, and its effect was felt along the West Coast and as far south as Chile.
The office in charge of the ill-fated Scotch Cap crew was Chief Boatswain’s Mate Anthony L. Petit, in his 20th year as a Coast Guardsman. The Coast Guard has honored Petit by naming a buoy tender after him. The USCGC Petit, is stationed in Ketchikan, Alaska.
The author of this story was a crewmember at Cape Sarichef,
a light and loran station twenty miles north of Scotch Cap, during 1954 and 1955.
This story appeared in the
March 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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