Couple gets more than simulation at earthquake display

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- To learn more about their adopted community of Anchorage, Susan and Jerry Wortley decided Sunday to visit the Alaska Experience Theatre and its earthquake simulation auditorium.

So when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake shook up Anchorage and much of the rest of the state, they thought it was all part of the show.

''We got our money's worth,'' Jerry Wortley said.

With summer over, business was slow at the downtown tourist attraction. The theater has one auditorium with a 180-degree screen showing Alaska scenery and a smaller auditorium devoted to one of the state's defining events: the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

Customers watch a 20-minute show. Halfway through, and again at the end, a hydraulic system shakes the floor to give them a taste of sitting through an earthquake.

''Apparently there are two simulations,'' Wortley said. ''We had three.''

Even after the show, as they viewed static displays in an adjoining gallery, and aftershocks made the ground roll again, the Wortleys didn't catch on. Susan Wortley thought her wobbly legs were a residual effect of the simulator -- something like a seaman getting his land legs back.

''We thought, 'This was really good,''' Susan Wortley said.

It wasn't until an employee opened up a display case to look at the theater's seismograph that the Wortleys began to suspect they had experienced a real earthquake.

''Mostly it records trucks and buses going by and kids kicking the snot out of the wall,'' said projectionist Mark Henderstein. After the earthquake, the machine's needle had slashed jagged lines across its graph paper.

The only other customer in the building was a man in the gift shop. Eleanor Butts was working behind the counter, and when she felt the earthquake, she yelled at the man and lit out for the door.

''I told him it was an earthquake and we need to leave,'' Butts said.

Surrounded by display cases, Butts said she mostly was worried about flying glass.

She's a little embarrassed that she and the other two workers on duty left the Wortleys in the earthquake theater. A few hours later, when her daughter in Washington called to see if she was all right, Butts acknowledged forgetting them.

''My daughter said, 'Don't you have a policy on that?''' Butts said.

The Wortleys wonder if they would have caught on sooner if the walls of the theater had fallen down, or whether they would have concluded that too was part of the show. Mostly they say the timing was funny.

''What were the chances that Frick and Frack would go to the earthquake exhibit?'' Susan Wortley said.

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