Columbus Day 1962: Memories of storm that roared still vivid
Seattle Times science reporter
"Next thing I know, something jumped on me," the plumber from Graham recalled recently. "I thought it was my dog. I was laughing. Then it bit me on the face."
It was a 200-pound lioness escaped from a blown-down pen.
The Oct. 12, 1962, Columbus Day storm, the worst tempest in the region's history, was like that — an attack so unexpected and so bizarre that those who lived through it remember its every blow.
Almost 40 years ago, hurricane-force winds bullied their way from Eureka, Calif., to British Columbia. Forty-six people were killed in Washington and Oregon by falling trees, downed power lines or heart attacks. A million homes lost power. More than 50,000 homes were damaged. Fifteen billion board feet of timber, enough wood to replace every home in the state, were knocked down.
The winds were astounding: 113 mph in Bellingham, 83 mph at Seattle's West Point, 100 mph in Renton. The coastal radar facility on Naselle Ridge in Pacific County took a gust of 160 mph.
The total blow-down of trees was more than three times greater than in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The pressure to move the downed wood was so great that new markets were opened in Japan.
Barometers plummeted below their 9 o'clock position, the point where experienced sailors turn ashen, and didn't bottom out until 28.2 inches.
At work was our own "Perfect Storm," which developed with explosive speed and followed just the right track along the coast to set the winds to screaming.
"The bottom line is the Columbus Day storm was the greatest windstorm in the Northwest since the arrival of the white man," said Cliff Mass, a University of Washington meteorologist.
Weather forecasting has advanced so much in recent decades that it is unlikely we would be caught so off-guard again. But the region has grown so much, and windstorms so common, that the area is vulnerable in a big blow.
The 1962 storm began building a week earlier on the other side of the international date line in the tropical Pacific Ocean. There the typhoon Frieda built for several days as moisture from the ocean rose and condensed. This released latent heat that would draw even more moisture from the ocean, helping rev up the weather system.
As the storm moved into the cooler midlatitudes, it converted into a hybrid weather system that derived most of its energy from the large horizontal temperature differences between Frieda and cold air in the Gulf of Alaska. It developed so quickly that some weather experts called it a meteorological bomb.
On the morning of Oct. 12, the storm was 300 miles southwest of Brookings, Ore.
Word began drifting across the region that a storm was on its way, but there was little to indicate how serious it was.
The science of computer-generated forecast, only a dozen years old at the time, was incapable of modeling on as small a scale as this storm — even though it was large. And without today's high-resolution satellite images and remote sensing, meteorologists lacked the data to get a computer model started. "We hardly knew what was out there," said Mass.
As the storm clobbered community after community on its way up the coast, power and phones were knocked out, so people couldn't send word north of what was coming.
Today forecasters have powerful computers and models, surface buoys and a greater knowledge of how such storms work.
"They've been studied to death," said Ted Buehner, warning-coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Seattle office. But the swath of land between San Francisco and British Columbia has far more people now, he added, with many more homes and businesses in harm's way. Around Seattle, trees in partially cleared woods now lack the windbreaks of nearby trees to keep them from falling.
"They will likely come down on to homes and businesses and vehicles and those kinds of things if we have another event like this again," Buehner said.
He advised people in windstorms to move to lower floors, garage their vehicles, avoid downed power lines and have emergency plans and supplies for food, water and heat.
Such thoughts were on few minds when the 1962 storm hit.
Jim French, a KIRO radio disc jockey at the time, heard a report that a Portland radio station had its towers blown down. He discounted it. "I said, 'That's just a rumor,' " he recalled recently. "We don't have weather like that."
As the storm arrived in Seattle around 7 p.m., French and his wife, Pat, were at a World's Fair press function at the Space Needle, which was evacuated as the storm blew in. As they walked outside, a neon sign flew through the air and crashed between them.
Driving by the monorail, French, a pilot at the time, heard the sound of a four-engine airplane struggling overhead. He looked up to see it only 500 or so feet up, well below the ceiling set by the Federal Aviation Administration. It looked like it was going 30 or 35 mph. Blue flames were shooting from the engines.
"That impressed me more than anything else, that here was an airplane fighting its way through the storm," French said.
Back at the Space Needle, Duff Andrews, a crowd-control worker and elevator operator, looked up at the new structure and saw that it was twisting in the wind. Most people had left the tower, but a few diehards were thought to be in the restaurant so Andrews and a co-worker got in the service elevator and headed up.
About 250 feet off the ground, near the needle's narrow neck, the elevator stopped.
The car took to bouncing up and down one or two feet at a time. Andrews opened a back door but a cyclone safety fence blocked escape. Rescue workers were so busy on other calls that the pair had to wait several hours. They passed the time playing gin.
"What else can you do?" said Andrews, of Eastsound, on Orcas Island. "It was like bobbing in a boat. You just got used to it."
At least he was indoors. Loren Rankin and his wife, Ruth, were stuck for two hours at the top of the World's Fair Ferris wheel. At first a thrill, it quickly got old, what with their seat swinging three feet one way and then three feet another, 110 feet up.
"The lights were out on the Ferris wheel and the fairgrounds and all across the city," Rankin said. "It became rather frightening."
It wasn't much better on the ground.
To get an idea of how rough it was, bear in mind that standing and walking become difficult when the wind reaches 30 mph or so. The laws of physics hold that doubling the speed of the wind quadruples its power, which is how a 60 mph gale can uproot trees.
A Vancouver, Wash., man watched the home he had built over the previous year and a half blow away.
"It just seemed to blow up," Allan Marshall said afterward. "Whoosh. It was gone."
Seven-foot waves broke on the Hood Canal Floating Bridge. Plate-glass windows shattered at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The Chief Kivina, a 10-car ferry, sank at its Lummi Island pier. A float plane was lifted on to its prop against the Puget Sound Flying Service on Lake Union.
Trees toppled everywhere, killing two people in Vancouver. Seven Washington residents died. Fatalities and damage were worse in Oregon.
With trees toppling, down came utility lines. At one point, figured Bob Evans, then head of Puget Sound Power and Light's Pierce County headquarters, 85 to 90 percent of his area was in the dark. Even then, he held back crews for fear they would be hurt by falling timbers. Some areas would not see all their power restored for a week.
Betty Banel might have thought twice about going out that night; trees were whipping around and "there was something in the air," she said. But her seven children, including a 2-week-old, were giving her cabin fever, so she escaped with two of her boys, ages 4 and 5, soon after dinner.
They were in a nearby grocery when the lights went out with a crash. She navigated her Plymouth wagon home through a maze of downed branches.
With the family huddled around candles and a blazing fireplace, her daughter Janie, 8, remarked, "Isn't it wonderful that we're all here together?' "
Banel likened the moment to Tiny Tim shouting, "God bless us, every one!" at the conclusion of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." She said it also was reminiscent of the odd, cozy feeling she had huddling in a London shelter during the German Blitz of 1940.
"Even though we were freezing, we basked in this euphoria of being all together and out of danger and still with the lights out," she said.
Charles Brammer, the Spanaway 7-year-old, did not have it so easy.
The lioness that attacked him was one of two pets whose nearby enclosure blew down.
"They were tame, but when the storm blew over the fence, it just freaked them out and they went nuts," said Brammer.
His father shouted at him to get in the house, but he ran the wrong way at first because blood was obscuring his vision. As he neared the door, the cat attacked again; Brammer fell and hit his head on the concrete steps before making it inside.
A neighbor came in a station wagon to drive him to the hospital. The lioness attacked yet again. Brammer's father fought it off with a baseball bat.
The lions were destroyed. Brammer had an eyelid sewn back on and took stitches to his nose and forehead.
But for all the drama of his story, he hasn't always tried to share it. The tale, like so much of the Columbus Day storm then and now, is that unbelievable.
Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.