A hellish night, 41 years ago, is still vivid in memory.
When he finally resurfaced, Gary Clawson was ice-cold. The rowboat he'd been paddling down U.S. Highway 101 was gone. Five of his passengers were dead.
It was a night Clawson can't believe he survived.
On March 27, 1964, the magnitude 9.2 Good Friday earthquake struck near the Gulf of Alaska. The temblor leveled downtown Anchorage and other parts of the state. It generated waves that traveled at speeds up to 600 miles per hour. The resulting tsunamis devastated small towns along the West Coast as far south as California, killing 130 people.
It was the worst tsunami in U.S. history.
In Oregon, a handful of people died, including four children who were camping at Newport Beach.
In Florence, the tsunami was spectator sport, remembers former Fire Chief Skip Passenger. He was a high school student at the time. With several hours' warning, people gathered at the Siuslaw Bridge to watch the wave come in. Fishermen pulled their boats into the river, to meet it head-on.
"It wasn't a breaking wave," Passenger said. "It was just a rise in the water, eight or nine feet when it went up the river."
The wave merely damaged some docks. Oregon got off easy.
In Crescent City, Calif., however, a dozen people died. Nearly half of them were with Gary Clawson.
`Let the tidal waves come'
Clawson has lived in Florence for 30 years, the owner of several restaurants on the coast. But he resides nowhere near the beach. Instead, his home is perched atop a steep hill along the Siuslaw River.
He doesn't want to take any chances on a repeat of 1964.
Good Friday was his father Bill's 54th birthday, so Bill and his wife, Gay Clawson, took the night off from the family-owned Long Branch Bar to celebrate.
Gary, then 27, was enjoying a cold beer at another local tavern with his girlfriend, Joanie Fields. By 10 p.m., emergency officials started warning people of impending "tidal waves" - the widely used but incorrect synonym for a tsunami - but such warnings were common. Nobody thought much about it until the first wave struck.
It was just before midnight, and the Long Branch bartenders, Earl and Nita Edwards, split for high ground when they saw the ocean approach.
When the wave began flooding the low-lying parts of town, Gary and Joanie went to his parents' house to figure out what to do. Nita and Earl had gone there, too, leaving the bar's doors unlocked and cash in the register.
After midnight, the second wave rolled in, about three feet smaller than the first. Many residents assumed that meant the tsunami had diminished. So the group returned to the Long Branch to close up shop.
"Long as we're here, we might as well have a cool one," Clawson remembers thinking. They laughed at the pitiful tsunami, which had only moistened the floors inside the one-story bar. "Let the tidal waves come," his father boasted.
Another local, Bruce Garden, wandered in when he saw the lights on. The Clawsons' friend Mac MacGuire stopped in to buy a pack of smokes.
The group celebrated.
The fourth wave
At 1 a.m., the third wave hit, rolling into the parking lot of the Long Branch, but the people inside didn't notice. At 1:40 a.m., the fourth wave hit. Gary bolted out the front door to get a look, just in time to see a 12-foot wall of water lift up the back of his brand-new Pontiac Grand Prix and deposit it onto his father's new Dodge Dart.
This wave packed the mightiest punch.
"The lights were still on, highlighting the maelstrom of turbulent sea and crashing barstools and splintering booths that surrounded everyone," wrote Southern Oregon University professor Dennis Powers in his recently published book, "The Raging Sea," an account of the Good Friday tsunami that includes interviews with Clawson. "The ocean thundered in, whirling together large logs and driftwood with the tables and stools."
The Long Branch was finished.
"That was it," Clawson said. "The lights went out. The wall caved in and the building took off. The roof buckled, like bending a beer can, and everybody jumped up on the bar."
The wave ripped the building from its foundation and carried it 100 yards. The eight people inside clawed their way onto the broken roof, knowing they'd die inside.
From there, the group watched fires spreading nearby. A three-story-high gasoline tank at a tank farm a few blocks away burst into flames. Clawson feared it could spread across the water and reach the adjacent Shell service station, where they could hear propane tanks hissing.
So he and MacGuire - the only members of the group who could swim - slid into the frigid water and maneuvered down the highway to MacGuire's house, a quarter-mile away, where they would retrieve his rowboat.
To leave room in the boat, MacGuire remained behind as Clawson rowed back up the highway. As he neared the Long Branch, Clawson saw a man and a woman in the water, and pulled them into the boat. The man was barely conscious, coughing up saltwater. The woman performed CPR and Clawson rowed to a berm surrounding a nearby mill pond. The couple got out and walked to high ground.
Clawson's family was still on the roof, terrified.
Hurtling toward the ocean
One by one, Clawson loaded the bar's occupants into the tiny rowboat, until seven people were on board. To the north, they could see land, so they paddled toward the highway, the boat so overloaded it barely stayed afloat.
The crew reached the highway and rowed north. By then, the tsunami had stopped its advance and the water was stagnant. But just before they reached dry land, the wave receded - at speeds of 40 miles per hour. Water sucked the boat toward the ocean, as if swirling down a drain.
At that precise moment, Clawson's crew was unknowingly crossing Elk Creek, which drained beneath Highway 101 through a culvert. The boat hurtled toward this tunnel and slammed into the entrance, too wide to pass through it. One man, bar patron Bruce Garden, reached up and grabbed hold of the bridge. The impact broke two ribs, but he climbed to safety. The boat's six remaining passengers spilled into the frigid water, which was loaded with huge pieces of debris.
The next thing Clawson remembers, he was trapped in the culvert, where a steel grate at its end prevented anything from getting through. He was stuck, unable to swim back because of the outgoing wave.
So he pushed. With every last ounce of strength, Clawson pushed upward, propelling his body beneath the debris until he was flat on his back, floating through a hole toward safety. When he popped up again, he was on the other side of the bridge.
He looked around. There, floating in the creek, was Earl Edwards. He was dead.
They were all gone
Eventually, most of the water drained back out to sea. Clawson soon began searching for survivors. His father, Bill, had drowned at the tunnel's west end, up against the grating, trapped beneath debris. Nita Edwards' body made it through the tunnel and was found about 200 yards downstream. Clawson's mother had washed out onto the creek bank. Fields got sucked all the way out into the ocean, a mile and a half from Highway 101.
It was just after 3 a.m. They were all gone.
"You never get over something like that," he says.
In the days that followed, Gary heard his own obituary twice, because officials had confused William Gary Clawson with his father, William Eben Clawson.
Nine months after the tsunami hit, Clawson left town. He bought a supper club in Gold Hill on the Rogue River. Three weeks after he opened, the river flooded, rising more than five feet - the highest level in recorded history - wiping out the first floor of the resort.
Clawson rebuilt it and moved on again a couple of years later.
Now 67, he's selling his four restaurants. He wants to enjoy the time he has left.
Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or email@example.com.
Gary Clawson of Florence survived a 1964 tsunami. Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard INSIDE Science: How would an Oregon Coast tsunami develop? / A14 Lava: An underwater eruption may be occurring / C5 Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard Gary Clawson rode out the tsunami of 1964 in a tiny rowboat. His fellow passengers weren't so lucky. Five of them died, along with 125 others.