March 5, 2001
by Jeanette Knutson
A 10:54 a.m. 40-second jolt rocked the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday, the last day of February, 2001. Catastrophic destruction was averted because the 6.8 earthquake occurred along a so-called deep fault, 33 miles below the earth's surface.
Nonetheless, the most powerful quake to hit the region in 52 years shook buildings and psyches.
Schoolchildren and workers area-wide shot under desks or darted outdoors as windows shattered, brick facades sloughed off old buildings and pavement buckled near the temblor's epicenter, 10 miles northeast of Olympia.
Elected officials in Kitsap, King, Grays Harbor, Pierce and Southwest Snohomish and Thurston counties declared a state of emergency in their jurisdictions. The cities of Seattle and Snoqualmie also declared a state of emergency.
An update as of March 4 at 6:50 p.m. from the State Emergency Operations Center listed one death, a heart attack victim, as attributable to the quake. There were 407 reported injuries statewide. Four people remain hospitalized; three are in satisfactory condition and one person is critical.
Telephone networks were rendered useless not so much because of fallen lines but because call volume exceeded a normal day's volume by 50 to 100 times, according to James R. Charlton, director of the national technical assistance center in South King County.
Power transmission lines tripped out, leaving 200,000 customers in South King County, Pierce and Thurston counties without power. Seattle City Light confirmed an additional 17,000 outages. Less than a day after the quake, power had been restored to 80 percent of those customers.
SeaTac Airport sustained runway, terminal and tower damage. By evening the day of the earthquake, the airport remained closed to most incoming flights.
King County Airport (Boeing Field) incurred runway damage with a one-foot drop in the main runway. A secondary runway was available for emergency use only.
Coleman Dock car ferry terminal was closed until further notice. Ferry service was interrupted but some service resumed the day of the incident.
Amtrak and freight trains stopped operation for track and safety inspection.
Most major arterials remained open throughout the day of the disaster but traffic was heavy and slow as dismissed workers from downtown offices drove home.
Preliminary inspections of 1,800 state-owned bridges and structures were made that Wednesday. A dozen bridges, overpasses or on-ramps were closed. Most notably in this paper's readership area, the bridge to Fall City at Milepost 2.5 was and will remain closed. State Route 202 (Fall City-Snoqualmie Road) was closed to all north- and southbound traffic between SE Fish Hatchery Road and Snoqualmie Falls. Inspectors found extensive damage to a 1,000-foot section of roadway near the falls that includes a longitudinal crack in the center of the road that extends over 900 feet. In addition, the roadway shoulder separated from the lane adjacent to the Snoqualmie River and fell away approximately six inches.
Current estimates are that the road will be closed to all traffic for up to 12 months or longer, depending on the design of the permanent roadway repair. Traffic engineers are identifying a long-term detour route and signing plan that will inform motorists to use I-90 and other roads.
In addition, Tolt Hill Road Bridge between State Route 203 and West Snoqualmie River Road Northeast was shut down.
In Olympia the Capitol was damaged; it and 20 other government buildings were shut down. In King County, the courthouse was closed. The Department of Judicial Administration and Superior Court were closed in Kent. The county administration building was closed. The Yesler Building was closed. So was the Seattle Division of King County District Court.
In Seattle, old and unreinforced brick buildings in historic Pioneer Square and in the SODO district suffered most as brick walls fell away from buildings, glass shattered and water mains burst.
Duvall resident Becky Nixon, who works on the 24th floor of the 2 Union building in downtown Seattle, said, "It swayed, my God did it sway. We had 45 seconds of extreme swaying ... but this new technology works. There was no noise, no breaking of windows. Things did fall within the office and everyone was disorganized in their thoughts ... it was almost as if it was harder on the ground floor, though. A lot of tiles fell in the lobby." Even though her initial instinct may have been to flee the building, the elevators were shut down for inspection and stairways were locked until the building as a whole could be assessed.
Woodinville resident Scott Knutson, who stood in a doorway in a hall on the 35th floor of the Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle, remarked, "The building shook for well over a minute." Facing him in another doorway stood a colleague who moaned "Ohhh boy" each time the shaking crescendoed.
Closer to home experiences were no less nerve-fraying but certainly more benign.
Cynthia Scanlon, spokesperson for the University of Washington, Bothell, reported, "Construction [of the new facility] held up beautifully. Some cracks were reported in the south parking garage, which we closed until we can determine the extent of the damage." After the quake, the building was evacuated so that construction crews, still on-site, and the university's safety team could check the building. Classes resumed in about an hour.
"We had a few broken bottles ‹ wine, olive oil, pickles," said Cheryl Nakashima of Top Food & Drug in Woodinville. "Everyone evacuated the store. The power went out for over an hour. But employees came back in and [using flashlights] helped clean up. There were no injuries. Everyone was a little shook up."
Ron Neubaum, manager at McLendons Hardware, said, "One paint can made a spill and a few tall things fell over. We shut down the store for 10 minutes to make sure everything was OK, to clean up that quart of oil paint and pick up the wood moulding that fell." Then employees played back the store security video and watched the people "flying out the store."
"Some people evacuated the building [City Hall], some people went under desks," recalled Deborah Knight, assistant to the city manager. "We were all prepared. We've done drills in the past. It was good to be tested. [People] felt confident about what they were doing ... both the old and new buildings were checked out with what we call rapid assessments." No damage was reported.
A mannequin in the retail shop window of the Redhook Brewery and Ale House tried to bolt.
"It leapt out of the window," said Dorothy Biro, who was working in the shop at the time. Some glassware tipped over, some bottles in the cooler tipped, but there are major cracks in the asphalt outside."
Employee Todd Carlson pointed out a parking lot crack measuring some 50 feet. Apparently, apart from the asphalt pulling away from the building and a drainage catch that appeared to move up and down, the building sustained no damage. Brewing continued; the bottling line moved on.
The relative lack of damage is due to the depth of the quake itself. But the Northwest's retrofitting efforts ‹ begun in earnest 12 years ago after the Oct. 17, 1989, 7.1 magnitude earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area, which killed 67 and did $7 billion in damage ‹ prevented untold damage. The dryness of this winter minimized the landslides. The countless drills schoolchildren and workers practiced ‹ all the community planning paid off.
And though the effects of this quake are undeniably substantial, somehow we're all feeling lucky here in the Northwest.