Earthquake in Virginia rattles Baltimore and the East Coast

A frightening earthquake jolted Baltimore and much of the East Coast on Tuesday, shaking buildings and rattling nerves. Thousands of people streamed from offices and homes into the afternoon sunshine, stunned by a phenomenon more commonly associated with seismic hot spots like California and Japan.

Area officials reported that the quake caused only pockets of significant damage, and there were no known deaths or serious injuries, locally or nationwide. But the sense of alarm was widespread as mystified residents jammed phone networks trying to reach loved ones and officials scrambled to assess the fallout.

And humans weren't the only ones feeling anxiety: Vibration-sensitive elephants at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore reacted by linking trunks and clustering together.

After the ground shook for several seconds, buildings were evacuated, pushing workers into the streets, and some businesses and agencies shut down for the afternoon. Rail travel was interrupted, and many commuters faced an early, congested rush hour.

Building inspectors quickly fanned out in Baltimore and around the state to check for structural damage, and authorities urged homeowners to look for foundation cracks and other signs of the quake's effects.

The U.S. Geological Survey gave the quake a preliminary magnitude of 5.8, making it one of the strongest on record for Virginia, and one of the strongest ever felt in Maryland.

The quake, centered 35 miles northwest ofRichmond, was felt from theGeorgia to Canada. It struck at 1:51 p.m. The geological survey reported several aftershocks.

While smaller temblors are hardly unheard of in the region, most go unnoticed. Jeffrey Halka, at the Maryland Geological Survey, said the state typically gets two a year that people can feel. Tuesday's was among the few times anyone now alive has ever felt the ground in Baltimore shake that violently.

The thought of an earthquake did not even initially occur to many. Some at first feared terrorism, while others jumped to more mundane conclusions. Chanel Jenkins figured she was just having mechanical trouble when her car began shaking as she hunted for parking downtown.

"I just had work on the car, so I was a little annoyed," said Jenkins, a day care provider and nurse. She was astounded when she saw people pouring out of buildings as she was driving in downtown Baltimore. "I couldn't figure out what happened," she said.

Some workers in Baltimore's World Trade Center said when the waterfront tower began to rock, they feared the worst. "The windows were buckling," said Deborah Harris, who works on the 10th floor. "My first thought was 9/11 and the fact that we work in the World Trade Center."

"Everybody hurried to get to the stairwell. We didn't know what had happened," said Deborah Hawkins-Epps, an administrative assistant who was in her seventh-floor office.

Others missed the excitement altogether. "We didn't feel a thing," said Tennessee resident Sarah Vos, who was inside The Gallery mall downtown at the time with her husband and their two children.

In Baltimore, the earthquake badly damaged the steeple and bell tower at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point. A spokesman for the archdiocese said the church was unsafe to occupy, and he encouraged worshippers to go to nearby Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown instead.

Farther east in Highlandtown, the Order of the Sons of Italy building on Gough Street partially collapsed onto an adjacent doctor's office, leaving piles of brick in the front yard.

In Annapolis, where the historic district dates to Colonial times, several old buildings reported possible damage, including loose or fallen bricks, said Rhonda Wardlaw, a city spokeswoman. Plaster fell off the ceiling in parts of the State House.

In theDistrict of Columbia, a pinnacle at the National Cathedral — the highest point in Washington — sustained significant damage, according to cathedral officials.

The National Mall was closed for a time, and workers evacuated the House and Senate office buildings.

Baltimore City officials warned residents at an afternoon news conference to prepare for aftershocks and to exercise caution around damaged buildings.

"If you're walking down the street, watch what's happening above you," counseled Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "Don't lean up against buildings."

Elsewhere in the state, there were some reports of damage, though no injuries have been reported, said Edward J. McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Many initial reports of damage turned out to be false. After initial reports of structural problems at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace came in, a spokeswoman said an inspection found none. No patients were injured or evacuated. In many areas, the physical effects of the quake appeared minor, given the force of the quake. In Baltimore County, for instance, officials reported no serious damage to any buildings or gas or water lines.

The tremor apparently triggered the collapse of a section of a cliff overlooking theChesapeake Bay in northern Calvert County, but without causing injury or harming property. Jim Parent, town administrator for Chesapeake Beach, said the cliff crumbled just south of a public beach.

The tall bayshore cliffs in Calvert County are continually eroding, Parent pointed out, and it's not unusual for a section to crumble after a big storm.

There were no signs of trouble at nearby nuclear power plants operated by Constellation Energy, including at Calvert Cliffs, spokesman Mark Sullivan said. The liquefied natural gas terminal at Cove Point in southern Calvert County, just three miles from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, also was apparently unaffected by the quake, according to Dan Donovan, spokesman for Dominion Energy, which operates the facility.

No city dams were affected, and there were no reports of water main breaks, said Celeste Amato, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works.

The twin-reactor Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Delta, Pa. — just across the Maryland line from Harford County and 45 miles north of Baltimore — suffered no damage and continued running at full power, said David Tillman, spokesman for its owner, Exelon Corp. But as a precaution, the company declared "an unusual event" — the lowest category alert under federal nuclear safety regulations — at Peach Bottom and Exelon's three other nuclear plants in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Three Mile Island. Engineers are conducting comprehensive inspections "just to make 100 percent sure," Tillman said.

Afternoon commuters encountered headaches in Baltimore and Washington. Service on MARC trains and light rail was suspended. The Baltimore subway was suspended and then reopened at 3:30 p.m. with speed restrictions. However, planes continued landing atBaltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Both Baltimore circuit courthouses were emptied and the prisoners evacuated using standard emergency protocol, said Capt. Samuel Cogen of the Baltimore sheriff's office. He was using the loudspeaker on a cruiser to control the crowd on the streets and to send employees home early.

"All nonessential personnel are relieved," he said to cheers.

Jurors stood on the island between the courthouses, trading quake stories. Farzin Kermani reached out to his wife, Rita, as soon as he felt the tremor. It took 22 tries on his cellphone to get through, he said. She was at the Barnes and Noble store in North Baltimore, where she said it felt as if the walls were coming down.

A block from the courthouse complex, City Hall employees spilled out on to War Memorial Plaza. Heather Brantner of Arbutus said she and colleagues at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice just "looked at each other" as the walls shook — until their boss told them to get out.

"This doesn't happen in Maryland," Brantner said.

Some offices and businesses simply shut their doors. More than an hour after the quake, a sign posted on the door at Harbor Bank's West Fayette Street building read: "Emergency Closing due to circumstances beyond our control. Our offices are temporarily closed. Sorry for the inconvenience."

Patti Long, a project manager at the American Office store downtown, was still shaking long after the tremor stopped. This was her first quake, and it "scared the living hell" out of her.

"I wouldn't want to live in a place where this happened all the time," she said.

When the earthquake hit, Michael Fitz-Patrick was on the phone at his Hunt Valley office, talking to a friend about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ten years ago, Fitz-Patrick was on the 61st floor of Two World Trade Center, the second tower hit. His friend was at a Manhattan coffee shop not far from Ground Zero.

"As we're sharing the story," Fitz-Patrick said Tuesday afternoon, "the building started to shake."

"Do you feel that?" asked his friend, sitting at his own office in North Baltimore.

Yes, Fitz-Patrick replied. Then he said, "Dude, I'm outta here."

Baltimore Sun reporters Tricia Bishop, Michael Dresser, Justin Fenton, John Fritze, Erica L. Green, Arthur Hirsch, Annie Linskey, Lorraine Mirabella, Frank D. Roylance, Julie Scharper, Andrea Siegel, Andrea K. Walker and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad