Kópasker - The Kópasker earthquake

Have you experienced an earthquake?
Listen to a story from Hólmfríður Halldórsdóttir who lived in Kópasker when the major earthquake hit, in 1976.

In the player below you can listen to the story as well as it is available in writing further down the page.
The story is read by Birna Pétursdóttir.


"My name is Hólmfríður Halldórsdóttir and I live in Kópasker.

On 13 January 1976, a major earthquake (around magnitude 6.3 on the Richter scale) hit Kópasker. The epicentre was offshore, only 12 km from the village. It was the largest earthquake in a series which began on 20 December 1975 in connection with the Kröflueldar volcanic eruptions further south, closer to Lake Mývatn. Most of the seismic activity also occurred closer to the eruptions. Only the largest quakes could be felt in Kópasker, including the biggest quake which had hit until then, on Christmas Day.

Around noon on that day in January, I had gone to the store with my son and his friend, whom I was babysitting (both were turning 5). There were many people in the store, including children, but most of them had left the store before the earthquake hit. When I had finished my grocery shopping, I told the boys to wait outside while I took care of an errand in an office in the same building. I had just taken a seat at the end of the table, opposite the cashier, when we heard loud rumbling. The cashier jumped to his feet along with the other two office workers. At the same time everything started moving, folders fell from the shelves and the men fell to the floor. I didn’t try to get up but held onto the table for dear life. The time was exactly 1:29 pm. I don’t know how long it lasted but it felt as if the building would never stop shaking after the earthquake had passed.

When the shaking finally stopped, we all shouted at the same time: “What about the freezing plant?” We knew that many workers had been inside, taking down hanging lambs and replacing them with new carcasses. I was also afraid that the boys might have wandered back into the store, because the other boy’s mum worked there. But they had obeyed me and were waiting outside when I exited the building. We walked back home and they were like hares, jumping across the cracks which had opened up in the snow. They talked about the earthquake and came to the conclusion that it would be best to hit it with a giant sledgehammer so that it would stop.

I left my son’s friend with his father, who was home by then, and began tidying up my house. There weren’t a lot of damages, so we went to another house where I knew the women had been nervous because of the earthquakes. They were among the first people who were moved away from the village. Soon it was decided to move all women, children and elderly people away as all water pipes were broken, another earthquake could have been imminent (although it never came) and it was unknown how badly damaged buildings were.

But at that point, my son and I helped pick up objects that had fallen on the kitchen floor in the other house and placed everything that was in one piece back in the shelves. Then we went outside to get some snow, so that we could wipe the berry and rhubarb jam off the tiles, which were brand new; they had been installed just before Christmas.

When we returned to our house, my husband had come home, too. He had been out at sea on a fishing ship, almost exactly above the epicentre of the earthquake. He said it felt as if they had hit something at full speed, but there was nothing there that they could have hit and no other ship around. The men had all been in the forecastle having lunch. When they walked out onto the deck, they observed that the sea was bubbling, as far as they could see. Our son described the earthquake to his dad “as if the ground had jumped around like a madman.”

Around the same time that the first people were moved away, a storm hit from the northeast and it started snowing. At about 5 pm a car arrived which was to take me, my son, another woman and three other children to Húsavík. In the evening, the weather worsened. When we were driving on the western Tjörnnes peninsula, where the road went down three deep gullies, the visibility was so poor that I, who was sitting in the passenger seat, had to stick my head out the window to tell the driver where the edge of the road was because he couldn’t see it. That’s how we made it to Húsavík where we spent the night at my brother’s.

The next day the weather had improved and I decided to go to Akureyri with the mail van to my sister’s. However, the van was full, so my son and I were given a ride with a lorry, which was going to Svalbarðsströnd near Akureyri to pick up potatoes. The vehicles departed at the same time. At Ljósavatn lake there was a huge snowdrift. When we made it through the driver was given orders to drive back because it had become so frosty that it would damage the potatoes to transport them on the open platform. The lorry driver towed the mail van across the snowdrift and then turned back to Húsavík, but my son and I were given permission to sit on the mail bags.

We stopped at Stjórutjarnir, a school close by, where everyone was given something to eat. A car from Akureyri came to meet us so that everyone would get a ride into town. It was a little strange to listen to the people in the mail van talk about the earthquake. Rumours had started circulating and everything sounded much worse than it actually was, regarding damages and injuries. My son whispered to me: “Mum, are they talking about the earthquake back home? Was it really like that?” Fortunately, no one was seriously injured; the worst injuries were a broken nose and a broken toe, otherwise bruises and scratches. We were incredibly lucky, all of us, and a series of coincidences prevented a major disaster from happening. Two weeks later we returned home, as soon as the water pipes had been fixed."