New Yorkers try to make sense of the earthquake after being evacuated from… (Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters )
From New York — Sidewalks were mobbed Tuesday afternoon when I climbed the subway stairs near City Hall in Lower Manhattan. I didn't think much of it until I overheard a tour bus guide talking about some shattered windows in a nearby building.
"They say it's 5.8," another man said.
Finally it dawned on me: An earthquake. In New York.
Did these people even know what to do?
Perhaps not. As I watched, hordes of people descended on City Hall Park from evacuated buildings. Now they were standing out in the open, surrounded by skyscrapers. In a respectable aftershock, they'd be showered with broken glass and falling debris.
In fact, it turned out New York had a cushion of several hundred miles, because the quake was centered in Virginia. I happened to be in town working on a story for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and I didn't even feel the quake, although that might be because I was on a subway train when it happened.
All around me, though, people were talking about the rocking, the swaying, the horror they thought was dizziness at first until they realized the end was near.
Abby Terkuhle sat on the sidewalk with his dog Louie, calling his wife to come out of their apartment because of the chance a nearby building would fall on it. Harry Giannoulis, a political consultant, lit a Camel and sucked hard.
"It was terrifying," Giannoulis said.
Excuse me, but heavy objects falling off shelves during a hard shake is terrifying. An overpass tumbling is terrifying.
This was next to nothing, although people estimated that the 30-second quake had to have lasted a minute and a half, easy.
Sarah McClutchy, 25, wore a look of mild distress as she held onto a fence for stability.
"Do you guys still feel it shaking?" she asked me and others.
I didn't feel a thing. But McClutchy wasn't sure we were in the clear.
"I don't know if it's because I just banister-slid down 20 flights of stairs, or if it's because it's still shaking," said McClutchy, who does credit research for Moody's.
She had run several blocks from her office in the heart of the financial district to get away from tall buildings, but now she faced a different fear.
"A tsunami would come from the east," she said, pointing beyond the Brooklyn Bridge to an imaginary wall of water.
All right, so for some of these people, 9/11 is still fresh in their minds, and when the earthquake hit, some of them thought it could be another attack. But over at Ground Zero, the muscled, dust-covered construction workers seemed to be holding up just fine.
"I'm embarrassed to admit this," said an electrician named Pat, who had been in a fourth-floor bathroom. "But I didn't know it was an earthquake. I thought the toilet bowl was coming loose."
I think you'd need at least a 6.5 for that.
Carpenter Scott Murphy was on the 68th floor of One World Trade Center, the tallest building going up on the former site of the Twin Towers, and thought someone had dropped a load of steel on another floor, no big deal. Carpenter Benny Direnzo was on the 70th floor and knew it had to be an earthquake, but he calmly exited the building and was ready to take advantage of an early quitting time.
Those guys, it seems to me, could make it in California, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
But Payam Samii, who stood near the construction guys, was smoking like it was his last cigarette. The quake had been history for 90 minutes, but the ground was still shaking for Samii, a Brit on temporary assignment to 7 World Financial Center, adjacent to Ground Zero.
"I'm impressed by how New Yorkers can shrug it off," said Samii.
Shrug it off? They're bracing for a tsunami.
"I was coming down the stairs," Samii went on, "and all I could think of was 'Towering Inferno.'"
By the time I got back to my hotel, it was all the more clear this hadn't been much of a quake, at least in New York. But still Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on the tube, calming the metropolis.
Local TV news had wall-to-wall coverage, but little to report. Over and over again they showed footage — from a live Chopper Cam, naturally — of a small pile of bricks that fell off a chimney in Brooklyn. Next on the highlight reel was a swaying chandelier caught on cellphone video by a homeowner.
I kept hoping some more interesting news would break, like a car chase.