Washington Monument Indefinitely Closed After Quake Rocks Nation’s Capital

A black fence encircled the Washington Monument, the obelisk most visible among memorials to American leaders on the National Mall, the day after a 5.8- magnitude earthquake centered in Virginia rocked the capital.

The shuttered monument, which the National Park Service announced will be closed for an undetermined period, wasn’t the only casualty of an earthquake recorded almost 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of the U.S. capital and 3.7 miles below the earth’s surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Stones tumbled from the Washington National Cathedral.

Some of the tourists milling around the Washington Monument today had their hearts set on ascending the tower. Kay Chapman, 52, had bought tickets online for a visit with her family.

“I was disappointed, because this is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Chapman, who lives in Anderson, South Carolina.

Just weeks from the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that included an assault on the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from Washington, the temblor yesterday rattled workers and tourists forced to evacuate office buildings and national monuments, including the White House.

Kids Won’t Forget

“The Secret Service and armed guards started telling us to leave, firmly,” said Barbara Maring, 42, who was finishing a tour of the White House with her husband and three children. She at first worried that the floor shaking beneath her was caused by a bomb. “Our kids won’t ever forget that experience.”

The fence at the 555-foot-high Washington Monument is keeping visitors about 100 feet away. Engineers are investigating the cracks in stones at the top of the monument and determining how to fix them, the Park Service said.

Sarah Bogun, 18, today took a last opportunity to visit Washington and the monument before returning to her native New Zealand. She has been staying with an aunt and uncle in suburban Gaithersburg, Maryland.

“I was kind of hoping that I’d get a chance to go up there,” Bogun said.

The city’s public schools were closed today while officials assessed damage. Many federal workers stayed away from the capital, given the option to work from home.

Cathedral Damage

The National Cathedral, which reported “substantial damage,” will remain shut at least through Aug. 27, said spokesman Richard Weinberg. A service scheduled that day for the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be held elsewhere and the cathedral is still assessing whether it can open for Sunday services, he said.

The central tower of the cathedral, used for state funerals for leaders such as President Ronald Reagan, represents the highest point in the city because the building is situated on a hill. Three of the four pinnacles on the tower broke and the fourth is twisted, Weinberg said.

Flying buttresses on the cathedral also sustained some cracks. The cathedral is appealing for donations to help fix the building, which has been deemed structurally sound.

“We’ll definitely be in the millions of dollars,” Weinberg said. It’s too early to say exactly how much it will cost, he said. “You can’t really put a price on that artistry.”

‘We Flunked’

A day after the biggest earthquake to strike the area in a century, officials were still assessing the damage and evaluating the city’s response. Traffic was gridlocked yesterday, as Amtrak railway service into Washington was disrupted and Metro trains in the city slowed to a 15-mile-per- hour crawl.

“We flunked this test,” said John Townsend, a Washington spokesman for AAA, a group that advocates for travelers. People were unaware of the main evacuation routes and the mass transit systems were unable to handle the sudden influx of passengers, he said.

“It was a low-grade panic but even a low-grade panic, like a low-grade fever, can cause all kinds of problems,” Townsend said. His group is encouraging people to become aware of escape routes and sign up for alerts from local government agencies.

Yesterday’s evacuation of office buildings was “spontaneous,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said during a conference call with reporters. “This was not something that was called for by local officials.”

The earthquake was a reminder that cell phones shouldn’t be the only communication tool people rely on in emergencies, he said. Text messages and Facebook postings worked well to communicate with family members when cell service jammed, he said.

Nuclear Reactors

The effects of the earthquake centered at Mineral, Virginia, were felt far beyond the capital.

Both reactors at the North Anna Power Station in Mineral shut down automatically after the temblor, David McIntyre, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an e-mail. No nuclear plants were evacuated, he said.

Off-site power has been restored at the North Anna plant, eliminating the need to run cooling systems on back-up generators, according to a company statement. Twelve plants from North Carolina to New Jersey felt the earthquake and went to the first of four emergency classifications while continuing to operate, he said. North Anna was on an alert status that is the second-lowest of four NRC emergency classifications, the statement said.

No major injuries were reported. Kathy Zeiler, who teaches at Louisa County High School in Mineral, said there were only about six or eight minor injuries among the 1,400 students who evacuated as the earth started to move.

‘Incredibly Frightening’

“It was the sound that was so incredibly frightening to me,” Zeiler said. “It was a sound I never heard. I thought the bowels of the earth were going to split open.”

U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican who represents the area that was home to the quake’s epicenter, planned to visit the school today, along with the North Anna power station and several other sites in the state.

The House and the Senate are both on August recess, and President Barack Obama is on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where reporters felt the temblor. Obama didn’t feel it, according to a White House spokesman.

During a conference call about the earthquake with aides, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and FEMA’s Fugate, the president was told there were no initial reports of major infrastructure damage, according to a White House statement.

Other Damage

A few buildings other than the cathedral sustained damage in Washington, including the Embassy of Ecuador, said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the city’s fire department.

The evacuation decisions varied at federal buildings. While the White House and U.S. Capitol were evacuated, the Supreme Court and the State Department weren’t. Flights were briefly halted at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the capital.

Nearby, the Pentagon quickly evacuated after the tremors, with hundreds milling in the courtyard. The mood lightened after people were alerted on mobile devices that the shaking was caused by an earthquake and not a terrorist strike.

A damage assessment by the Pentagon’s Washington Headquarters Services found only a burst pipe that caused “considerable standing water,” according to an announcement over a loudspeaker system installed after the Sept. 11 attack.

Erin Schwartz, who recently returned from Seattle to her hometown in Arlington, Virginia, said she had been more concerned about an earthquake on the West Coast. The tremor made her feel “kind of like the earth was Jell-O,” she said.

Her fiancé, whose downtown office building was evacuated, texted her one word: “Earthquake!”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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