I can only imagine that adults living in and around the Seattle-Tacoma area today, who were here February 28, 2001, have their own personal memories of the Magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake that struck at 10:54 Pacific Time that morning. What follows is my story…
My husband Charles and I opened a flower shop in the 1990s called Love Me Now Floral Design in the Historic District in Steilacoom. We’d suffered insurmountable financial difficulties and despite having put our hearts and souls into the business, we had finally surrendered to the reality that we had to close the business.
February 28, 2001 was our last day in the shop. I had a medical appointment at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle at 11 a.m. to learn the results of a series of tests at the UWMC Roosevelt Clinic. I drove myself to Seattle. Charles stayed behind at the flower shop packing up boxes for our move-out.
Traffic on I-5 had flowed nicely. And when I arrived at the Roosevelt Clinic, it was 10:50. Whew! Perfect timing. Just enough time to find a parking spot in the underground garage and take the elevator up to the clinic on the top floor of the medical center.
I pulled into the garage hoping beyond hope there’d be a vacant spot on ground level, but it was full. I began my spiral down into the garage to the next floor underground. It, too, was full.
I continued down to the third floor below ground hoping and praying for an open parking stall. There wasn’t one.
On down, down, down to the fourth floor below ground – the lowest floor of the underground parking garage – desperate for a parking space as the time for my appointment was edging closer.
But I didn’t see any open spots.
It was 10:54. All at once every car alarm on every vehicle began to wail. All of the cars and trucks and vans in the entire parking structure were rocking back and forth violently. The cacophony of sirens from alarm systems was deafening. The concrete and steel beams of the structure were undulating above my head.
We owned a Chrysler Town & Country LXi minivan at that time and used it for floral deliveries as well as being our personal vehicle.
In the driver’s seat of the van, my head seemed perilously close to those undulating beams that were bouncing wildly up and down. So many thoughts were going through my mind – things I’d never thought of before, things I’d never had to think of before – for instance, should I stay upright in the driver’s seat and hope that my neck would be snapped so I’d die instantly? Or should I hope for a possible rescue despite the certainty of being buried alive in the rubble and perhaps try to lie down on the floorboards of the minivan in the hopes that at some point I might be found and rescued – injured, but alive?!? I didn’t know what to do.
The other car in front of me had stopped, so my path forward was blocked.
I decided to jump out of the van. Instinctively, I ran toward the elevator – only perhaps 30 feet away from where my van had been forced to stop. As I reached the elevator, the power went out and the elevator car crashed with a thud in the elevator shaft. Yes, in hindsight, I know that “In Case of Emergency…” no one is ever supposed to use an elevator. But in that moment, it seemed the most expeditious possibility for escaping from the almost certain fate of being buried alive four stories below ground in the earthquake.
With the power out and the air filling with dust from the concrete that was being pulverized by the gyrations of the earthquake, the only visible light four floors below the earth was from the little green EXIT signs.
All I could do was follow those and run as best I could up the merciless concrete spiral ramp, circling around and around and around. By the time I got up to the level that was two floors below the earth, there was a bit of light leaking through and that gave me hope that I might actually escape.
Eventually I did make it back up to the parking garage entrance and out onto the street level and sidewalk beside the medical center.
But then what?!? What was I going to do?!? Was I going to go back into ‘that’ building? And try to go to my medical appointment – as if nothing had happened? Or was I going to walk back down into that dungeon of darkness and try to retrieve my minivan and head for home?
I didn’t know what to do.
Everyone from inside the building had exited out onto the sidewalk. Of course, there was terror that the building’s façade would collapse on us, so we all stayed out there for a time until the ground motion had settled down.
Eventually, I gathered my wits about me as best I could and entered the building. I climbed the staircases and went up the several floors to where the clinic was located for my appointment. Everyone there seemed as jittery as I was.
One particularly strong memory is that when the doctor came into the exam room, he walked over to the sink to wash his hands. When he turned on the faucet, rusty, brown water came shooting out.
The next hurdle was to find the courage after the office visit to choose to walk all the way back down that spiral ramp to the fourth floor below ground to locate my minivan and (hopefully) be able to extricate it from the dungeon.
Nothing ever felt so good as to be able to head out from Seattle on southbound I-5 headed back toward Tacoma and Pierce County. It was an other-worldly experience that afternoon though, because everyone – all of the drivers on the freeway – seemed to be shell-shocked to some extent. People were in a trance-like state as they drove. They were / we were all driving slowly, courteously, looking straight ahead, no one was zipping in and out from one lane to another. It was almost like a massive funeral procession all the way from Seattle back to Tacoma.
We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I didn’t know how Charles was until I was able to get back to our flower shop in Steilacoom. Thankfully, he was safe. Light fixtures fell and boxes toppled over, but Charles wasn’t injured.
The epicenter of the quake was only three miles from our store right out in the middle of the ferry lanes; ferries go from Steilacoom to McNeil Island, Anderson Island and Ketron Island.
At the time the M6.8 Nisqually quake happened, we were housesitting for a retired couple, who lived near Lake Louise in Lakewood. They were away on a year-long road trip in their truck and 5th-wheel trailer. That evening when we closed up the shop and returned to their house for the night, the earthquake had left some eye-popping surprises for us.
When we walked into the kitchen every drawer was open. It was as if the place had been ransacked. Every single drawer had been slid all the way open. We couldn’t believe our eyes! And then when we went into the bedrooms and bathrooms, it was the same in every room of the house. Every drawer had been jiggled all the way open by the rocking and rolling of the earthquake.
We closed all of the drawers and then fixed ourselves some dinner.
After dinner we sat down in the family room. That’s where the fireplace and TV were located, so we’d usually relax there in the evenings.
On the fireplace mantle, the homeowners had a souvenir from one of their previous trips somewhere. I’m not sure exactly what it’s called. I’ve seen this sort of thing in gift shops at Ocean Shores and other beach communities. I’ll just call it a ‘sand frame’ for lack of a better term.
The ‘sand frame’ has several different types of sand and fine gravel in it plus some kind of liquid (possibly oil or water, I really don’t know) and it is sealed between two panels of glass that are mounted in a wooden frame. The frame can be flipped over so that the sand / gravel and the liquids inside mix together and settle out to create interesting patterns. Something of a novelty item…
Neither Charles nor I had touched the ‘sand frame’ that day, night or anytime. But it had just been in even layers of the different types of sediment. We both remembered that.
But that night, February 28, 2001, as we were watching TV, the ‘sand frame’ caught our attention. It had changed. And it had changed dramatically and alarmingly!
It had gone from being even layers of sediment in the frame to having taken on the appearance of two underwater volcanoes erupting with huge ash plumes spewing forth from them. I will include a photo of it. I wish the picture was of better quality. But it boggled our minds to see the transformation that had occurred on the day of the Nisqually quake!
In the days following the M6.8 Nisqually quake, Chambers Creek Road was blocked through Steilacoom in the area by the old paper mill due to damage to the roadway and terrain. Since traffic was not allowed through there on the roadway, we parked back at the mill and hiked in to get a closer look and snap a few pictures.
Two other pictures accompany my story in addition to the one of the ‘sand frame’.
One shot shows the width of a fissure in the ground along Chambers Creek Road near the mill. There are orange and white traffic cones adjacent to the fissure. Those will give you a good idea of the width of the gash in the earth.
Another picture is near the dam along Chambers Creek Road. There is a massive boulder there. It has been there for a long time. But what was new as a result of the Nisqually quake was that the earth immediately adjacent to it either rose up or dropped away from it by a measurement of at least 18-inches. That’s a very significant movement of earth that I don’t think most people in the area realize even occurred here during the Nisqually quake.
I have to admit that for a couple of years after the quake I had a very difficult time with going into parking garages – above or below ground – and elevated roadways where there might be any motion or instability of the structure. That day, February 28, 2001, was more traumatic for me than I realized at the time. That brush with death, the possibility of being buried alive, was something I had a tough time shaking (no pun intended).
I’m thankful Charles is the patient person he is. He stood by me through it all, and it wasn’t easy over those next two years. The one bright spot in the trauma of that day – February 28, 2001 — was that my test results at UWMC were negative and that was a huge relief, so I was glad that I had not only survived the brush with death four stories below ground that morning, but also that I had stayed for the follow-up appointment.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.