At Virginia Tech, an engineering college communications coordinator thought a construction crane had hit the building. At George Washington University, a student thought a nearby building was being demolished. Another thought an underground train was passing.
As a 5.9 earthquake rocked dozens of Washington-region colleges Tuesday afternoon, officials alerted students via e-mail and text message to evacuate buildings. At this point, there have been no reports of major damage or serious injuries.
Fall classes have yet to begin at most area schools, but campuses are buzzing with faculty members preparing for the school year and students moving into the residence halls, buying books, meeting with clubs and attending orientation. When the earthquake hit, hundreds of people gathered on grassy central quads or athletic fields with their smartphones and laptops.
“As is probably the case everywhere else, people are surprised, some were a bit [more] shaken up than others, while others seemed more matter-of-fact about it,” said George Mason University spokesman Dan Walsch.
There’s no telling if well-built East Coast buildings can sustain a West Coast-style earthquake, so many universities closed buildings until structural engineers could fan out and examine each one. At American University, engineers had assessed and cleared more than a dozen buildings by 3:30 p.m. Trinity Washington University cleared all of its residence halls by 4 p.m. and continued with plans to serve dinner in the dining hall.
On many campuses, cell phone service was spotty as hundreds of students tried to connect with their parents. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tweeted at about 3 p.m.: “Parents of UVA students are writing me. Cell service is out — or mine is. That's why you can't reach students.To extent I know, they're fine.”
The scary rumble turned into a bonding opportunity for freshmen at Goucher College in Baltimore, where orientation is under way.
“The students used the disruption as a way to talk about where they’re from and if they had ever experienced an earthquake before,” said Kristen Keener, a spokeswoman.
At Marymount University in Arlington, the dozens of people gathered outside sang “Happy Birthday” to a junior whose 21st birthday celebration was disrupted by the rumble, according to a university spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, a throng of Georgetown University students who had been kicked off campus while buildings were inspected gathered at The Tombs bar for afternoon drinks.
We should note that we have received some reports of very minor damage: At the GWU library, the quake knocked books and potted plants to the floor, according to the GW Hatchet student newspaper. A building on a satellite campus of the University of the District of Columbia lost a few ceiling tiles. And Montgomery College has discovered some wall cracks in two buildings on the Rockville campus and cracked glass in two doors on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus.
Despite the earthquake, a group of Montgomery College students who were waiting in line at the college's financial aid office held their ground, according to spokeswoman Beth Homan. Financial aid is key before classes start next week, and they didn't want to lose their places in line.
Could you feel the earthquake on your campus? Share your stories and experiences in the comments section.