Tsunami Once Killed in California

CRESCENT CITY, Calif., Jan. 9, 2005 — -- On that calm, clear March night in 1964, no one in Crescent City could have imagined the force of nature heading their way -- the only tsunami ever believed to have taken lives in the continental United States.

"We did have a chance to get out before it hit, but nobody knew it was going to come in like that," said Mac McGuire, who lived through it.

McGuire was in the Long Branch Bar as a tsunami generated by a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Alaska raced toward the Oregon and California coast at 415 miles per hour.

'We Were Really Scared'

Civil defense official Bill Parker had received a teletype warning.

"We were really scared," he said. "Here we had a message, and we didn't even know what a tsunami was."

The first few waves were relatively small and caused minor flooding. Then, two hours later, a much bigger wave hit.

"We stood there and watched it," said Ray Young, who was there that day. "It came to just about Fourth Street. And behind were massive whirlpools, throwing cars in the air. Oh, you couldn't believe the destruction."

When it was over, 29 city blocks were left in ruins. Fifty-four homes and 42 businesses were destroyed. Some buildings were moved right off their foundations.

In all, 11 people died in the tsunami. For those who lived through it, the images are still vivid.

"That wave hit us and we went back about 300 feet … the whole bar," McGuire recalled.

Still On Guard

When the tsunami hit, Crescent City had thriving fishing and logging industries. No longer. Today, the town caters to passing tourists who can't miss the reminders of what once happened here.

Hotel visitors are warned of the tsunami danger in three languages. Evacuation routes are clearly marked and warning signs abound, especially near the harbor. The tsunami has, in fact, become part of the town's identity.

The residents of Crescent City are dead serious about preparation for another tsunami. A special siren atop town hall is sounded once a month as a drill.

"You don't want to mess with it," Young said, "because that water, you can't believe the power that it has."

ABC News' Judy Muller reported this story for "World News Tonight."