2 women recount experience on remote island near epicenter of magnitude 8.2 quake

‘It was a bolt and run kind of instance’
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 7:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Two women living and working on a remote Alaska island were some of the people closest to the epicenter of July’s 8.2 earthquake off the Aleutian Chain. It was the largest earthquake in the United States in more than 50 years.

Wildlife Biologists Briana Bode and Katie Stoner had never experienced an earthquake like the one that hit this July. They were about 65 miles from the epicenter.

“We had a shelf with spices on it and pots and pans, and pretty much everything on that shelf was on the floor,” Stoner said.

They were the only two people on Chowiet Island — east of Chignik and southwest of Kodiak Island — and they were living in a small cabin while studying seabirds through their jobs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“These cabins are made predominantly of plywood and two by fours with a tin roof. And so they’re not as stable as some houses built out of concrete. So, when the wind blows really hard, they do shake a little bit.”

The quake hit at about 10:15 p.m., as the women were getting ready for bed. As Stoner was covered in a sleeping bag and liner, she stirred, wondering if she was feeling a quake.

“I had just stood up to go brush my teeth,” Bode said. “And she (Stoner) said, ‘Is that an earthquake?’ And she was partway through it. And I was saying no. ... And it got quite a bit worse, quite a bit faster.”

The cabin started violently shaking, Stoner said. As things were falling off the shelves, the pair ran outside.

“I was inside of a thin liner. And then I think my sleeping bag was unzipped,” Stoner said. “I don’t know how I made it outside of the liner, but I managed to leap out of both of them and I ended up on the trail in my socks. I didn’t even put shoes on. "

They watched from outside as land fell from nearby islands.

“I think for me, it was overwhelming in a holistic sense,” Stoner said. “The shaking was obviously not normal, but we could look out and see the other islands around us and actually see chunks of rock falling off of the other islands. Then there was the noise of everything in the cabin falling and moving, and it was just overwhelming.”

Bode said a nearby island, Aghiyuk, is a very geologic and landslide active area.

“During this, it seemed like every slide path that could slide was sliding,” Bode said. “We could smell the dust in the air as it went on, but from our perspective on the island, we couldn’t see anything that had changed, which was a bit of relief.”

When the shaking subsided, they grabbed supplies and headed for higher ground.

“During this time, I was hyperventilating. It was very traumatic,” Stoner said. “We weren’t sure if the shaking was going to come back.”

“So much had fallen onto the floor that it was more like picking our way through all of the debris to try and get to the back of the cabin,” Bode said.

She had to stop and think for a second while packing the essentials to evacuate.

“I was still holding the toothbrush,” she said with a laugh. “I had a toothbrush in my hand until we started packing and realized that I needed actually two hands to pack and ‘oh, by the way, I’m still holding this.’”

They trekked about two-thirds of the way up to a ridge line, well above any kind of tsunami zone, Bode said.

“We’ve hiked the same trail at this point over a dozen times that summer. And just being outside where nothing can fall on you was a relief,” Bode said. “Although I think we hiked up that hill faster than we have ever hiked up that hill.”

When the pair sat down on the hillside, there was an aftershock, Stoner said.

“I looked over and the hillside that’s covered in ferns, had the ferns reverberating with the movement of the ground,” she said. “It was just quite surreal.”

Bode said the birds carried on as they would any other night, and it was comforting.

“It was kind of like the wildlife and the island (were) saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got this. We’ve done this. We did the hard part,’” Bode said.

After the tsunami threat waned, Bode and Stoner headed back to their cabin.

“Given the rustic cabin that we lived in, there wasn’t really much that could break,” Bode said. “In fact, the only fatality in the cabin from this event was one ceramic coffee mug.”

They crawled into bed without putting everything away, in fear it would fall again.

But their love for the island continues.

“For probably about a week following the earthquake, I wondered and was worried that the island wouldn’t feel the same again because it was our home and we loved being there, and then we experienced this trauma,” Stoner said. “But after about a week, maybe a week and a half, we had done all of our rotation of monitoring again and were safe and so it started to feel like home again.”

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