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THE NORTHWEST QUAKE

6.8 Quake Hits Seattle, Northwest

Seismology: One death, about 250 injuries and billions in damage are reported. The temblor is Washington's worst in 52 years, but the relatively modest toll elicits relief.

March 01, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — A powerful 6.8 earthquake rumbled deep beneath Puget Sound on Wednesday--sending Seattle's high-rise office towers into a terrifying sway, unleashing landslides, damaging roads and crumbling building facades. Early damage estimates were in the billions of dollars.

More than 250 people were injured but, defying expectations, only one person died in the strongest temblor to hit the Pacific Northwest in 52 years. That, experts said, was due to the fact that the temblor's epicenter was buried in solid rock 30 miles underground. Tremors from the quake, which was centered 35 miles southwest of Seattle near the state capital of Olympia, were felt as far away as Salt Lake City and British Columbia.

The violent pitching and rolling began at 10:54 a.m. and lasted nearly 45 seconds--long enough to send old brick building facades crashing down onto cars, trigger a landslide that blocked a major river in Seattle's eastern suburbs, open fissures in roads and puncture gas and water lines.

"It almost felt like an intense boat ride, with motion sickness. I can tell you, I was afraid," said Meredith Russell, a receptionist on the 50th floor of the downtown Bank of America building. "There were window washers creeping up to the top of the building, and they looked scared. It was an intense feeling."

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, air traffic controllers ordered an inbound passenger jet to "pull up" before touchdown as windows in the control tower shattered. At least 1,000 passengers were stranded at the airport as inbound flights throughout the day were diverted to Portland, Ore. A makeshift control tower was set up in a trailer, and limited operations resumed within a few hours.

Nearby Boeing Field, the base of much of the region's general aviation and corporate air traffic, was closed indefinitely after the runway crumbled in several places and the control tower lost power, along with at least 200,000 homes from Olympia to Seattle. Power has been largely restored.

Ferry traffic and Amtrak passenger service were halted for several hours and at least 30 people weretemporarily stranded atop Seattle's landmark Space Needle as it shuddered violently. Members of the Seattle City Council--meeting to discuss, in part, a Mardi Gras riot Tuesday night that left 70 people injured--had to dive for cover under the council table.

Late into the evening, traffic backed up for miles as people struggled to get home to check on their families, navigating roads blocked by landslides and crumbling support posts. Traffic on Interstate 5 south of Olympia was diverted to allow for inspection of a damaged bridge.

At the University of Washington's seismic center, some monitoring equipment pegged out at maximum readings, and one instrument picked up only part of the temblor because of the severity of the shaking. "It shook so hard the pens broke off," center coordinator Bill Steele said.

Gov. Gary Locke, estimating damage in the billions of dollars, declared a state of emergency Wednesday, and President Bush dispatched Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh to inspect the damage.

"We will assess whatever damage and we will provide whatever resources are necessary to help the people," Bush said. "My administration stands ready to help in any way we can."

Officials in King County, the largest in a metropolitan region of 3.1 million people, credited stringent earthquake building standards and repeated emergency response drills for the minimal casualties. The only death was that of a 66-year-old woman from Burien who succumbed to a heart attack.

"For an area that's as populated as we are, with an earthquake of this magnitude, we handled it incredibly well," King County Executive Ron Sims said. "Any other place with a magnitude of 6.8, there would have been far more damage, far more injuries."

Government Officials Shaken by Temblor

Still, government officials were clearly shaken by the temblor. Several state legislators began praying out loud as a crack split through the massive state Capitol dome, and Locke ordered those attending a meeting with him to seek cover.

"I first felt the floor vibrating very hard. I thought at first, this is a lot of construction, what's going on in this building? I immediately realized this was a lot more than construction. I told everybody, 'Let's get under tables, under desks.' Then the floor started sliding back and forth, a wave motion," Locke said.

"I was here in '65," Locke said, recalling the 6.5 magnitude earthquake that struck the Seattle-Tacoma area that year, killing seven people. "And this was longer, much more intense and much more frightening," the governor added.

'That Building Really Rocked'

Sims, who also was at a meeting at the state Capitol, said: "Wow, you talk about being tossed around. That building really rocked."

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