PALMER — During the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that shook Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30, 2018, students and staff around the schools in the Mat-Su Borough School District worked together to prevent any major injuries from occurring during the quake.
Colony Middle School suffered some of the most damage of any school, except for Houston Middle, needing the most ceiling tile repair in the aftermath of the quake. English teacher Stephen Young had a prep period on that Friday and was one of the first teachers to see what damages had occurred in the hallways of Colony Middle on his way from class to class to check on students.
“There was sort of this filtered light that was coming through all this dust and it was almost like a movie. Everybody was absolutely eerily silent because nobody knew what to do,” Young said.
Elsewhere on the second floor of Colony Middle, Danielle Chyko did not have a prep period, nor did she know where her 7-year-old daughter was.
“I had a little bit of mommy fear and was calling out for my kid,” Chyko said.
Chyko dove under a desk once the shaking started and a video taken by one of her students allows her to recount the moments after the shaking subsided. Chyko’s daughter had just left her classroom to get on a bus for elementary school when the shaking started. Huddled under their desks with dust and silt filling the air and debris falling from the ceiling, Chyko’s students can be heard calming down their peers and their teacher, asking if any of their classmates are injured, if their teacher was okay, and if any larger aftershocks may be incoming. Students were left in the dark for minutes until emergency lighting came on. Chyko and other teachers instructed their students carrying cell phones to use the phone light. Colony Middle evacuated until the building was deemed safe and regrouped in the gym while parents came to pick their students up from school following the earthquake.
“When you drill for these things, you don’t get past get under your desks and wait for the all clear. In 25 years of teaching up to that point, that’s as far as we got. Nobody really had any idea what we were going to do afterward, so every bit of what we did afterwards was organic,” Young said. “We sort of created what I think is a pretty good template for what you should do after you hide under your desk.”
Young said that Nada Boyer was the voice in the crowd of frightened staff and students that began to establish order in the dark gym. Using a whistle and her teacher voice, Boyer again instructed students with cell phones to provide light and began separating grade levels so that students could be taken home.
“Actually It was a good teachable moment in the gym. I was like hey guys, we learned about earthquakes and tsunamis, where are we located are we safe or we not? So that was kind of cool to bring in a little bit more science,” Colleen Walker said.
Walker’s class was learning about earthquakes, preparing to take a test on tectonic places when the 7.1 earthquake struck on Nov. 30. Following the shake, Walker was compelled to become more trained in emergency preparedness. Walker attended a workshop put on by the Alaska Native Geoscience Learning Experience to collaborate with other educators and better prepare for emergencies. Walker will present her work in February to Colony Middle.
“We need to join with community forces to get information to kids, to their families, about what to do and so we thought at the middle school level that we would do like a build your own go backpack and have them take that home talk about are you prepared with your family,” Walker said.
Teachers credit former assistant principal Tyler Gilligan as the first responder to most second floor classrooms. As students evacuated, Chyko instructed her class to grab hold of a classmate and not let go until they had reached safety outside. Once outside, Chyko found relief from her maternal worries.
“When we got outside the building I was reunited with Hope and overwhelmed, kids everywhere, kids crying, parents speeding into the parking lot wanting their kids,” Chyko said. “The kids huddled together. I had three students who grabbed my 7-year-old who was hysterical. They pulled together. They supported one another in a way that I’ve not seen kids support one another before.”
Young suffered some of the most horrifying damage in his classroom, despite the lack of students. A heavy air handler had fallen out of the ceiling and scraped the desk in the middle of the classroom as it hit the floor. Young made a meme of the image to illustrate to his students how much worse the earthquake could have been. Among other teachers, Young still has anxiety when earthquakes or aftershocks rattle the ground beneath his feet.
“I am honestly deeply frightened,” Young said. “They seem to come from nowhere and they build and it becomes really dangerous really fast.”
Throughout the chaos in the dark at Colony Middle, teachers say that the experienced has helped the students and staff grow closer together as a community. Chyko and her students tagged the underside of the desks they had hidden under when they first returned to their classrooms.
“It was just a way of getting the kids a chance to heal somehow,” Chyko said.
While teachers were looked upon to be leaders in the darkness, students at Colony Middle ultimately calmed their classmates down to evacuate safely.
“A couple of kids said hey, Mr. Young, how are you? How are you doing? They were asking me and I kept thinking gosh, isn’t that my job to be asking you and you’re asking me how I am?” Young said. “I felt like wow, I’m seeing the best in a lot of these kids.”
Closer to the epicenter of the quake, Knik Elementary principal John Gardner dealt with similar problems in a different manner. Knik had not received students yet for the school day, save for a few dozen that had gotten on the bus early. As Gardner saw to the safety of the students and staff, he began to assess the damage to the building. The suspended tile ceiling in the Knik gym had almost completely malfunctioned, losing half of the contents of the ceiling to the gym floor below. Knik students were unable to use the gym until the spring semester of the 2019 school year.
“When we came back, they didn’t know what to do with the gym and they found a little bit of a flaw in kind of the design here,” Gardner said. “I think it’s the right decision. I thought there’s no sense in putting back something that failed.”
With a few dozen students watching a movie in an unharmed classroom, the major difficulty for parents of students at Knik Elementary was getting to the school. Gardner said that Knik-Goose Bay road was equivalent to a parking lot and Vine road had been exploded by the quake. Aftershocks that lingered into the early part of 2019 and still rattle southcentral have had a lasting effect on Gardner and his students at Knik.
“The biggest thing that has stuck with me is just how present it still is, how everybody still reacts to it,” Gardner said. “I know I react more strongly to those aftershocks than I probably did before.”
Though Garner had less chaos to manage than other secondary schools that started earlier on that Friday, November 30, he was glad that he had been trained in how to lead during dire situations.
“My biggest takeaway was, we have emergency preparedness documentation plans, we do drills, we train to respond in emergency situations, but it’s diff to drill than when you actually have one,” Gardner said. “Everything went exactly as it should’ve.”
With one of the older school buildings in the district, Palmer High School stood through the quake but suffered technical difficulties within the school building. The fire alarm at Palmer High went off during the quake, something principal Paul Reid called a blessing in disguise. Students practice fire drills every month and were prepared to evacuate the building with the fire alarm going off.
“Knowing how violent it was for that short period of time, it teaches you real quickly that mother nature is in control in the end,” Reid said.
Reid stayed at the high school and waited a very brief time for fire department staff and the fire marshall to arrive and turn the fire alarm off. The students of Palmer High evacuated as many others in the school district did, but had a farther jaunt to their secondary location. Palmer High students were staged at the Latter-Day Saints Church while they waited to be signed out. Reid credited the work of Colene Smith and JoLene Grover who managed students at the church while Reid and administration went back into the school. In the months following the quake, Reid said that administration at the school district office reviewed policies and procedures for disaster response and how to handle situations in the future.
“They felt that they were well cared for,” Reid said. “I think a lot of kids gained trust in staff. I thin in general it brought our staff closer together. When you experience something like that collectively, everybody’s in the moment.”