The Inferno

The Inferno tells the story of when author Michael R Dougherty and his family lost there home in 1963 when an entire city block in Alaska burned to the ground.

By Michael R Dougherty

The fire spread quickly through an entire city block in the picturesque coastal town of Cordova, Alaska -

It was very early in the morning on May 2nd, 1963 when me, my sister Anna and brother Tom woke up and sensed that something was very wrong. I looked out a window of our second story apartment and saw people running everywhere. I quickly opened the window and stuck my head out to see what was going on.

A man in the alley below looked up, saw me and shouted "you better get out of there, a fire is headed your way." I pulled my head back inside and said to my sister and brother, "there's a fire." Just then, our mom, Louise Dougherty, came running through the front door of our apartment. A look of terror covered her face. She told us to start grabbing our things and run to get them across the street as fast as we could.

Mom went on to nervously tell us that a fire had started in the Club Bar and Club Cafe down the street and was quickly headed our way. Our dad was with the other men in town as they all helped the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department fight the fire.

In 1963, our dad, Ray Dougherty, had brought us to Cordova to live, while he worked on a road project out of town.

At that time, Cordova consisted of mostly wood buildings, wooden boardwalks and dirt streets. It was a lot like being back in the old west. So when a fire broke out, it had a huge amount of fuel to burn.

Our family was living in a small two bedroom apartment above a downtown bar. To get to our apartment, you opened an outside door and climbed a very steep set of wooden stairs that ended at our front door.

Inside our apartment we were all quickly grabbing up our belongings, then heading down the stairs before running across the street were we put everything we owned on the boardwalk and hopefully out of the way of the fire.

After I put my first load of belongings down on the boardwalk, I turned around to look at the fire.

What I saw was terrifying.

The fire was spreading fast and thick smoke was billowing skyward.

I was 16 years of age and it was obvious to me that this was going to be very, very bad. I quickly made about two more trips inside our apartment before we were told that it was too dangerous to go back again.

Mom, me, Anna and Tom all ran down the street to stand in front of the North Star movie theater where we were safe from the fire. At least for the time being.

As we stood there trying to catch our breath in the smoke-filled air, we could still see what was quickly becoming a roaring inferno.

When the fire reached a hardware store, we started hearing explosions as the fire set off paint cans and other flammable material.

Then word circulated through the crowd that they were going to use a case of dynamite to try and stop the fire.

At the right moment, we were told to brace ourselves for the explosion. But even though we were ready for it, the force of the blast nearly knocked me to the ground.

But the dynamite did not work.

The flames were now a roaring inferno and the heat was so intense that it was melting the tar off the roof's of buildings across the street. To keep the fire from spreading, fire crews turned around and sprayed water on the buildings, and our belongings that were stacked on the wooden boardwalk.

The May 1963 Cordova, Alaska fire burned down an entire city block, except for one building. A bowling alley had recently been built using brick and other modern materials. The bowling alley not only survived... it thrived after the fire.

By the end of the day, we were homeless.

But our situation changed quickly when our family was able to move into a mobile home that night in a small park just a short walking distance from town.

After the fire, while things were just beginning to get cleaned up, my brother Tom and I were walking past where the grocery store used to be. The owner was there, going through the charred rubble and had come across a can of ham.

The fire had cooked the contents, so the owner opened the can and asked if we wanted to have a snack.

Me, my brother Tom and the grocery store owner, stood there on a pile of still smoldering ashes, eating the ham and looking over the burnt remains of a city block. It was surreal and an image I will never forget.

Just 10 months later, on Good Friday March 27th 1964, our family was living in Anchorage, Alaska.

That was the day of the Great Alaskan Earthquake. The largest earthquake to ever hit North America.

Yes, we went through two tramatic events in a short span of obly 10 months.

Today, the 1963 fire is but a distant memory.

Cordova, Alaska rebuilt, and today, it's a thriving and very picturesque town that's worth a visit.

Our picture of the 1963 fire is from the Cordova Times

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