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Towson reacts to earthquake: 'Unnerving ... few moments' create a day of memories

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (2011)LibrariesMass Media

Mark Armstrong, co-owner of Towson Framing Gallery, was upstairs in the Finkelstein building in the 400 block of York Road pricing some molding samples on Tuesday when, "I heard this big rush," he said.

"It sounded like wind and a rat-a-tat-tat like hail," he said, "and I looked out the window and it was a beautiful sunny day — even though the building was shaking and the walls were trembling.

"I went out on the second-floor veranda and looked across the parking lot and saw this big picture window still pulsating," he said. "My neighbor came out and asked, 'What was that?'

"It occurred to me," said Armstrong, "that this must be what it's like in an earthquake."

It was indeed. Tuesday's 5.8 magnitude quake emanating out of Virginia hit Baltimore County shortly before 2 p.m., shaking buildings and causing county government buildings to be evacuated.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake hit near Mineral, Va., with trembles reported from South Carolina to Boston.

No significant damage was reported in the county, but fire officials responded to people stuck in elevators, said Don Mohler, a county spokesman.

Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said he was on the phone with Chris McCollum, executive director of the Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture in Hunt Valley, when McCollum noticed shaking there.

"He said, 'Don, I gotta go,' and as soon as he said that, I said, 'I know why. We're having an earthquake,' " Mohler said.

County buildings were evacuated so fire and public works teams could assess possible gas leaks or structural damage — neither of which were found. County employees were allowed back inside at about 2:40 p.m.

Supervisors were told to allow liberal leave to county employees who were "nervous or worried about themselves or family members," Mohler said.

Phone lines became jammed after the trembles occurred, as residents tried to reach loved ones and find more information.

Kamenetz was in Ocean City for a few days with his family after last week's Maryland Association of Counties convention. He said they didn't feel a thing, but immediately after the quake, he received a call from his office.

"I spoke to the police and fire chiefs immediately," Kamenetz said from Ocean City. "Our public safety personnel are well-trained to handle any emergency," he said, "though I don't recall any instance where we had an earthquake."

Little damage, no panic

Charles Herndon, spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the system had no evacuations, but, "There were some people who voluntarily left the buildings and went out when it happened, but I think that's a normal human reaction."

After the earthquake, Herndon said calls began pouring into the central office from schools, including from the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, where administrators thought the trembles were from construction on the campus.

"It was definitely an unnerving thing for a few moments," Herndon said. "I think it takes a few moments to process what it is. Is this a big truck rolling by? Is it the boiler a floor below me? A military jet overhead?"

Maryland State Highway Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority engineers inspected bridges, and reported no damage. Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for county police, fire, and emergency management, said inspectors checked out hospitals and county buildings and also found no problems.

The county's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management activated its Emergency Operations Center in the county office building.

The walls are lined with televisions, and on the front wall, a projector beamed data from emergency offices across the state.

Mark Hubbard, director of the homeland security for the county, said the crew was already planning to be up and running this weekend for Hurricane Irene. He said the office holds two drills a year. Earthquakes, however, aren't usually a part of the drill.

"It's definitely a queasy feeling, knowing that it happened here," Hubbard said.

Scenes from a big shake … and 'save the ice cream!'

As the quake hit, local residents found their summertime routines stirred a bit:

Loch Raven Village resident Renate Shelley and her husband, George, were sitting in their SUV watching their dog, Minnie, playing in Gunpowder State Park when their car began moving.

"We felt the car go left and then right and then back and forth," she said. "But we weren't driving."

"What the hell was that?" said George, who had been snoozing.

After listening to the radio news, they called her son in North Carolina and found that he was OK. They couldn't get through after that, as phones started jamming.

***

Timonium resident Dorrie Wilfong and a friend were just leaving the table after having a wonderful "Tea with Julia Faye" at the Stone Mansion near Sinai Hospital.

The shelves of the room that surrounded them were full of fancy tea pots and cups and saucers, "but nothing fell," she said.

"My poor friend had just gotten a shoulder replacement, and it was tough enough for her to get up," Wilfong said.

"She didn't need an earthquake."

***

At first, Ken Knight, manager of Stebbins Anderson on Kenilworth Drive, thought it was work being done on the roof, and that one of the big air conditioning units had fallen off.

Nobody warned him, and he was irritated. It was bad enough when a light fixture in the ceiling popped out and some glassware started falling of the shelves, but he thought an employee must have been be kidding when he told him four or five cans of paints in the hardware section of the store had fallen and burst open.

"Both floors took a little rocking," he said.

The good news was a few things fell off the shelves in his wife's store, Stebbins for Her, he said. "But they were just purses."

***

The ceiling of Jones Lighting Specialists showroom on Dulaney Valley Road is crammed with chandeliers, and Angela Oriente was one of only two salespeople on the floor when the chandeliers started swaying, she said. Really swaying.

"We looked at each other and I said, 'It feels like an earthquake,' and the receptionist had turned on the radio and said, 'It is an earthquake,' and we decided to go outside," she said.

"But nothing fell. I never dreamed we would have an earthquake on the East Coast."

***

At the Towson Library, some of the employees were enjoying an ice cream party in the staff room when the shaking started, according to branch manager Jen Haire.

"The joke was, 'Save the ice cream,'" she said.

The building has been known to vibrate when a big truck passes by on York Road, or during a construction blast, so a little shaking was easy to dismiss," she said, especially since she was in the children's area at the time, which is cantilevered and not as affected.

"Frankly, I feel safe in this building," she said. "It looks like a bunker."

But the library did sustain a crack, which is being investigated, she said.

The library already has evacuation procedures for tornadoes, Haire said. "Now we'll have to work out one for earthquakes."

***

One Timonium family will remember much more about their days than the fact that there was an earthquake.

Alex Young lives in Towson, but works as a solar physicist at the NASA Goddard in Greenbelt. He and his fiancé, Linda Schenk, operate a website, The Sun Today, and Young was invited to a meeting with NASA's social media team.

"I was sitting next to a really big glass window," Young said. "We all thought something had exploded or hit the building. I could see the glass undulating, like a wave on a pond."

The order came for everyone to leave the base, but Young stopped at his office before evacuating.

"I went to my desk, and I have a couple of awards on a shelf," Young said. "One is a big, Lucite block the size of a textbook, and it had fallen exactly where I lean over when I work at my computer.

"If I hadn't gone to the meeting, this thing would have fallen on me," he said. "It would have hurt."

Both Young and Schenk have spent time in more earthquake-prone areas — Schenk in San Francisco, and Young in Japan — but Tuesday's tremors were the most intense they'd ever experienced.

"We never really had this much excitement," Schenk said.

***

Meanwhile, Schenk's mother, Joanne Paull, of Timonium, and friend Joanne Gregory of Towson, were in Washington, D.C., about to take a tour of the White House.

"We had just gone through five checkpoints and were finally in a staging area," Paull said. "All of a sudden, the floor started shaking noticeably.

"Immediately, security routed everyone out of the building. They just kept saying 'Please move along quickly,' and one said 'Please don't panic,' which immediately made us think there was reason to panic.

It wasn't until they were off the White House grounds that someone found out it had been an earthquake — Paull admitted that another thought had crossed her mind.

"We thought maybe there could have been an explosion somewhere in the building."

***

At the Edenwald Retirement Community, "things were amazingly calm," said fifth floor resident Betty Walter.

"I was sitting there having Campbell's tomato soup and cheese and crackers when things began shaking," she said.

"But I opened my apartment door and saw nobody else had come out in the hallway. And some people at dinner didn't even mention it, though one old lady said her tea cups had fallen.

"Initially someone told us the quake had occurred somewhere between Towson and White Marsh. Of course that was wrong, but I guess they went with the information they had at the time," she said.

"It was just a blip. There was no hysteria. It give me faith in the wisdom of old age."

***

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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