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Congressional staff mistakes earthquake for terrorist attack

August 23, 2011 |  6:04 pm

Click here for more photos of the earthquake. When a building shakes in Washington, "earthquake" does not spring to mind.

Instead, as the magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook the capital on Tuesday, it sparked immediate fears of a terrorist attack for congressional staff members accustomed to repeated warnings about man-made threats.

Zach Cikanek, press secretary to Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), said he was in the Rayburn House Office Building when he felt shaking for about 60 seconds, then a “quick rumble that felt like a passing train, and then a pause.”

PHOTOS: Earthquake hits the East Coast

Just as he and his colleagues were getting up from their desks to investigate, they felt an “elevated tremor that raised everyone’s alarm bells,” Cikanek said.

For many, this was their first experience with an earthquake. And with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearing, an earthquake was the last potential event on many Washingtonians’ minds. 

“In D.C., when you feel the building rumble, the first thing that goes through your head is you get worried that this could be an act of terrorism,” Cikanek said. “Once people realized it was an earthquake, and more than likely over with, most people went through the evacuation procedure and went to their designated area.”

Capitol Police evacuated the complex and said it would remain inaccessible as structural engineers from the Architect of the Capitol surveyed the buildings. Garages were also closed, leaving staff and aides without their vehicles.

“At first we weren't sure exactly what it was, but as we heard the Capitol Police officers and other staff shouting evacuation orders, we knew it was serious,” said congressional staffer Rachel Semmel, who fled without her keys or wallet. “For a brief moment during evacuation, it was very scary.”

At a Department of Motor Vehicles office in downtown Washington, “everybody started to shout and run for the door,” said a Capitol Hill staffer who was trying to resolve a traffic ticket during his lunch break. “When you live in D.C., you never know what to expect. That’s your first instinct -– the city’s going to get bombed or something. You just have images of Japan and I knew I didn’t want to be trapped in the DMV for days on end.”

Most lawmakers are away in August because Congress is on recess, but the Capitol and its surrounding office buildings remain a bustling place.

Some saw humor in the event.

“I’ve got a whole new view of the lyrics, ‘I feel the Earth move under my feet,’ ”  joked Sharon Jenkins, spokeswoman for Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).

Budget analyst Stan Collender said he waited for the shaking to end, hailed a cab and went to his next meeting, which was held outside on the sidewalk.

“Of course, the earth only moves in Washington when Congress is out of session,” he quipped.

Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer said that there was structural damage to some buildings in the Capitol complex and “a couple minor twisted ankles.”

“Aside from people being a little bit anxious and nervous,” most Capitol complex employees are fine, Gainer said.

Recounting notorious events in the modern era on Capitol Hill, Gainer, the chief law enforcement officer and executive officer of the Senate, noted: “We’ve had officers being murdered, incoming aircraft, the threat from 9/11, anthrax, Ricin — so this is a community very experienced at various man-made and natural threats.”

Personnel in the Office of the Attending Physician were treating minor injuries and the Capitol Police “have been very nicely on top of things,” Gainer said.


East Coast earthquake's epicenter near a nuclear plant

Earthquake damages National Cathedral

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-- Katherine Skiba, Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey, reporting from Washington

Photo: The plaza on the east side of the Capitol is empty after the earthquake. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images