From Robert Elder, Oceanographic Systems Laboratory
Date: Tuesday, September 29, 2009, 8:33 PM
This morning (six hrs ago) we were shaken awake by an earthquake which seemed to have no end! We were aboard our vessel and tied side-to a big concrete dock in the heart of Pago Pago, American Samoa. And after living up & down the California coast, I knew this was no minor tremor.
After the rude awakening, my wife & I walked across the dock and chatted with a few of our fellow sailors, one of whom said that he’s just done a Google search on “recent earthquakes” and said that it measured-in at 8.1 and the epicenter was only 120 miles distant.
e returned to our vessel and I turned on our laptop and searched the same website. Sure enough there it was… “8.1 erthquake - American Samoa - 20 minutes ago”. I clicked on the “Show Map” option and noticed the epicenter was located south west of Pago Pago… which is located on the southern side of the island.
Just as I was considering the ramifications of that little fact… all hell started breaking loose! Our boat was on the move! My first reaction was to start the engine and dash up on deck to see what was going on. I witnessed the water around us was rapidly dropping! Rapidly! In a blink of an eye, we were on the bottom and the boat was falling away from the dock! Three of our big docklines popped and we fell right over into the mud - the entire basin we had been floating in only moments ago had completely drained! People were screaming!
Next - the water came flooding back in at an even more alarming rate and the next thing I knew we were floating directly above the dock! Over the concrete slab and drifting toward a young lady we knew (from another boat) who was desperately hugging a power pole and up to her chin in swirling water! I told my wife to cut the two remaining dock lines with our serrated bread knife and to be quick about it!
Right as I put the boat into gear, we were somehow washed back off the dock and into the basin as I advance to full throttle and we accelerated through a floating debris field of floating docks, fuel drums, sinking boats, a shipping container and a barnicle encrusted wreck all of which were spinning in the torrent of rapidly dropping sea level. It was absolute mayhem! As we steered out toward the deep water in the center of the harbor I looked over my shouder and saw what appeared to be a waterfall pouring off the dock and shore beyond. Not one of the dozen vessels remai ned at the dock. All were underway in a matter of seconds… with or without crews aboard.
We motored around in the middle of the harbor watching the waves of floods & ebbs while wondering about after-shocks and our fellow cruising sailors. As we passed one of our neighbors she shouted to us that her husband had been washed off the dock as they were trying to get away. She was alone and seriously concerned. Other boats broke free from their moorings and anchors in the initial seismic waves and many were driven ashore, or driven under by loose tuna boats.
After about three hours, we felt it was finally safe enough to return to the dock. All we had were lengths of old line and we were short a couple fenders. We were the first to go in and we started un-tangling lines and helping others get back along side the concrete dock. All of the store-fronts along the water are destroyed, roving mobs of kids can be seen looting, the fence around the dock is gone, every boat on stands in a nearby boatyard were washed away. Big fishing boats are now in parking lots across the street. Absolute destruction is seen everywhere along the shore.
Phones and power are down but we got back online right away and I immediately went back to the recent earthquakes website to see if things have been calming down in the center of the earth. A number of aftershocks as strong as 6.0 have been reco rded over the past few hours - but thankfully no more wave action has been noticed. We’ve been making Skype calls to our families and letting others use the computer as well to phone home.
Online news reports say that the earthquake lasted three minutes and the highest flood rose 25 ft above normal! There are 20 confirmed deaths… including our neighbor who was swept off the dock. Most fatalities occured in and around the harbor where we live. Boats are battered and nerves are fried. One friend wound-up on his boat nearly 1000 feet away from the water after breaking from his anchor and sailing right down Main St. taking power & telephone wires down with his mast! Some people lost everything… including their lives. We came through remarkably well with only minor dammage sustained to our toe rail when the dock lines parted and to our fender basket which was the only point of contact with that drifting wreck. I never felt any jarring loads while we were hurtling around above & below the concrete dock, so I believe our hull, keel & rudder suffered no dammage from the wildest boat ride I’ve ever been on.
We’re all okay… and very lucky.
And we’ve adopted a tiny kitten. Her name is Lucky.
And that’s the way it is.
Oceanographic Systems Laboratory
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution