1964 tsunami tragedy brought Alaska student and Hawaii teacher together

1964 tsunami tragedy brought Alaska student and Hawaii teacher together
Avis Kompkoff
Avis Kompkoff
Linda Damas
Linda Damas

By Malika Dudley - bio | email

CORDOVA, AK (HawaiiNewsNow) - Avis Kompkoff has had a hard life. She survived a 1964 earthquake and tsunami, but lost most of her family. A teacher from Hawaii inspired Avis to keep on living.

"We were getting up and just doing what we do every day. My oldest daughter came over and was playing with her two brothers. I had an older daughter, four years old" said Kompkoff.

A friend of Avis' came by to pick her oldest daughter Joann up and take her to her grandmothers. Moments later, her son came running into the house.

"My oldest son ran and came and sat on the bed, and I wondered 'cause I looked at him and his eyes were wide open. He just sat there… and then all of a sudden I could feel the movement on the floor."

"The water was getting real rough. You could see guys running down the dock to untie their boats. Somebody hollered 'tidal wave'."

Avis ran out of the house and saw her neighbor, Steve doing the same.

"He had a little baby girl, she was the cutest, fattest little baby girl. I don't know what happened to Steve and Rhonda, but we never did find them. They were just gone, and they were right with us, right behind us."

86 people lived in Chenega, Alaska in 1964. 23 people died that day, 12 of them children.

"They found my grandma first, under some debris. My oldest girl two weeks later. Her face and part of her stomach was already missing. The guys quit looking for people after that."

Avis also lost her uncle, aunt, mother and father. All that was left of the town was the school where they took refuge. What she saw that day still haunts her.

"This lady, my age, she had just little twin boys, they were so little. Just brought 'em home, they were so little. I heard later, they died of exposure because every time she found one, she'd run and a tidal wave would come and take the other one away."

"I learned to sit on my feelings and not deal with it."

That's what Avis did for decades until she met Linda, who she credits with saving her life.

"I was really quite surprised that she felt that way" said Linda Damas. "You never know how you're going to be instrumental in somebody's life."

Damas, who now teaches at UH-Hilo, moved to Alaska in 1982, where Avis was one of five students in her adult education class.

"She was at a crisis point when I met her. and one of the first things I learned about her was the crisis in Chenega. She loved all of her children."

Avis had a sixth grade education. Linda helped her get her GED, and in the process they formed a special friendship.

"But I always let her just do a kind of catharsis. She just touched my heart so with her story. We'd meet every Saturday morning for coffee and chitty chat. We also went on hikes together. We're very good friends still."

Linda cried when she watched Avis in cap and gown receiving her high school diploma, her life forever changed by the fulfilling power of education and the healing power of friendship.

"A lot of that trauma got put on the back burner because she saw there were more important things to do. Just like two souls that were supposed to meet, I suppose."