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Rare earthquake damages National Cathedral tower

Magnitude-5.8 temblor felt along most of U.S. East Coast

[Episcopal News Service] An unusual magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck in central Virginia during the early afternoon Aug. 23 significantly damaged the central tower of Washington National Cathedral about 84 miles to the northeast.

Cathedral spokesman Richard Weinberg told Episcopal News Service by phone later in the afternoon that the finials or capstones, which are shaped like fleurs-de-lis, fell off three of the four pinnacles (corner spires) of the "Gloria in Excelsis" central tower.

There are also cracks in some of the flying buttresses around the east end of the apse, and pinnacles fell from the west front and the apse, he said. The east end is the oldest part of the cathedral.

The buttresses around the central tower seem to be sound, according to a late-afternoon press release from the cathedral. And, despite some cracks on upper floors in the interior, no damage to the stained-glass windows has been reported.

The cathedral was evacuated, said Weinberg, who estimated that about 300 people, including staff, were in the building when the quake occurred. The cathedral will remain closed at least for the rest of the day as engineers and stonemasons assess the building. Weinberg said it is not known when the cathedral will re-open to visitors.

Weinberg said he was returning by car from running an errand when the quake hit and he found that the cathedral staff "was rather shaken up," but no one was hurt.

"The earthquake which struck the east coast today is a reminder of the continuing evolution of this planet, 'this fragile earth, our island home,'" said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in a statement issued on the afternoon of Aug. 23. "It is also a reminder of how interconnected we are," she added, noting that a major quake damaged Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand in February.

"We can give thanks that no one was killed or seriously injured in this earthquake," Jefferts Schori continued. "I urge your prayers for all who visit, learn, and worship in the Episcopal Church's and the nation's central cathedral, as the damage is evaluated and repairs begin."

Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd III said in the later release, "the National Cathedral cannot be more grateful now for the National Cathedral Association (NCA), the nationwide network of supporters that raised funds to build this edifice beginning in the 1890s."

The Washington Post reported that some of the stones from the central tower fell on Pilgrim Road.

"It was scary seeing it fall," a red-faced 10-year old boy attending a nearby soccer camp told a Post reporter.

Joe Alonso, the mason foreman at the cathedral, told the newspaper "a third of one of the pinnacles fell back onto the roof of the tower."

Contrary to initial reports, the tower itself is not leaning, Weinberg told ENS.

The cathedral's central tower, the highest point in Washington D.C., was completed in the 1960s and restored in the 1990s after repeatedly sustaining lightning damage. The fallen finials were placed at the end of the restoration, according to Weinberg.

Constructed in fourteenth-century English "perpendicular" Gothic style, Washington National Cathedral is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the second-largest such church in the United States, according to the cathedral. It was constructed between 1907 and 1990 on Mount St. Alban, in the northwest part of the city.

Elsewhere in Washington D.C., Alex Baumgarten, the Episcopal Church's director of government relations, told ENS via email that the staff of his Washington office "evacuated quickly and safely, and were accounted for within minutes of the first tremors."

"It appears that our offices suffered no damage but for a few paintings falling from the walls," he added.

At St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Culpeper, Virginia, the quake separated the narthex (lobby) from the nave (the main body of the church) and the building has been condemned, according to Emily Cherry, communications officer for the Richmond-based Diocese of Virginia. Diocesan officials will visit the church Aug. 24, she said. No one was injured. The congregation will temporarily worship in the parish hall.

Employees fled the White House and the U.S. Capitol and House and Senate office buildings were evacuated as tremors shook the buildings for several seconds, the Washington Post reported. The Pentagon was partially evacuated and many of the city's museums and monuments were closed.

"Washingtonians are unaccustomed to dealing with this sort of event, so as of late afternoon, the streets are still clogged with automobiles, public transport is canceled or slowed, and businesses are shuttered as people work to discern the best way home," Baumgarten said in his email. "People have remained calm, however, and have dealt with the confusion with level heads."

Buildings were evacuated elsewhere, including City Hall in Manhattan. Airline and train service was temporarily disrupted, cellular phone callers ran into trouble and landline phone service into and out of the Washington D.C. area was disrupted.

The United States Geological Survey said that the quake, which struck at 1:51 EDT about eight miles outside of Mineral, Virginia, was slightly less powerful than the state's strongest recorded temblor: a magnitude 5.9 quake on May 31, 1897.

Initial USGS reports pegged the Aug. 23 quake at 5.8, then 5.9, but a further review placed it back at 5.8. A magnitude 2.8 aftershock hit at 2:46 EDT.

People felt the quake as far away as Toronto, according to some reports, as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Ohio. Earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S., although less frequent than in the western U.S., are typically felt over a much broader region, according to the USGS. East of the Rockies, an earthquake can be felt over an area as much as 10 times larger than a similar magnitude earthquake on the west coast, the agency said.

There is a Dominion Virginia Power nuclear power plant in Mineral, which is about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. The power company said an alert (the lowest of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's emergency classifications) had been declared at the North Anna Power Station following the quake and the reactors had been shut down safely. The earthquake was felt at the company's other Virginia nuclear power station, Surry Power Station in southeast Virginia, but not as strongly. Both units at Surry continue to operate safely, the company said.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.

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