Remembering what happened in the Nisqually earthquake



Posted on February 25, 2011 at 2:23 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 1 at 12:47 PM

SEATTLE - On Feb. 28, 2001, the Puget Sound region was rocked by the largest earthquake in decades, injuring more than 400 people and causing more than $500 million worth of damage.

Centered 30 miles southwest of Seattle, the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually quake struck at 10:54 a.m.

In Seattle, Tacoma, and communities across the region, the ground shook for up to 40 seconds, sending people running for cover. The earthquake was felt as far away as Salt Lake City.

It lasted less than a minute but when the shaking stopped we saw a very different Seattle. The unreinforced masonry of the old Pioneer Square buildings littered the streets and sidewalks of the historic district. The area's galleries and stores were a mess, floors littered with products shaken off the shelves and with fragile art that had been shattered in the quake.

There was severe damage in the SODO area, where cars were crushed by falling bricks, the front façade of the Starbuck's building fell apart and broken pipes spewed water.

Geri Dalfior was handling the phones at Seattle Chocolates on First Avenue South when the quake hit. Going out the front door was not an option, she could see bricks raining down and a cloud of smoke from the building shaking itself to pieces around her. So she headed out the back way, down a hall that had been corkscrewed into what seemed like a funhouse corridor.

"It was tilted like this" she says, "and I just kind of held my hands out to the walls and felt my way down the corridor."

She got out and joined the thousands of others milling around in the streets, wondering exactly what had happened and what was happening elsewhere. Only the geologists knew at that point that we had suffered the biggest earthquake in the region in 50 years.

The quake did damage outside the cities as well. A huge landslide dropped away beneath Highway 202 near Fall City, closing the road for months. A mass of mud and tangled trees clogged the Cedar River east of Renton, diverting the river's flow and causing erosion and local flooding. Other landslides in that area destroyed several homes that were never rebuilt.

Add in damage on the Kitsap Peninsula, Olympia, and cities and neighborhoods all over Western Washington and the final damage bill may have topped $4 billion.

Transportation took a huge hit. The Seattle's viaduct was closed after subsequent inspections. The Magnolia bridge was deemed unsafe. And then there were the airports. The runway at Boeing Field buckled and cracked, needing extensive repair. The control tower at Seatac came apart, ceiling supports crumbling and inch-thick glass windows blew out.

Brian Schimpf was the lead air-traffic controller on duty. And he stayed on the job, his commands still echoing across the years: "Attention all aircraft! We have a huge earthquake in Seattle. The tower is collapsing, I say again the tower is falling apart! Hang on everybody!"

Schimpf, a determinedly modest man, smiles when he is reminded of what he did that day. And he swears he's no hero, just a well-trained worker who did what he had to do. Schimpf hopes lessons learned in that frantic 45 seconds and the days that followed are not forgotten.

"We were given a wake-up call ten years ago and I hope we don't forget that call and continue to heed the warnings and be prepared for an event like that," he said.

Scientists say in the decade since the Nisqually earthquake, the level of seismic danger in the Pacific Northwest hasn't changed, but scientific ideas about the danger have evolved and the ability to study and prepare for it has improved immensely.

Scientists from the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey have increased their knowledge about the three different types of non-volcanic earthquakes that occur in the Northwest, and are learning how unfelt "episodic tremor and slip" events relate to seismic risk. The number of seismic sensors and the territory they monitor has tripled, and engineering standards have improved to meet the region's seismic risks.

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