Thousands flee homes after quake in Seattle

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The Independent US

A powerful earthquake rocked Seattle yesterday, sending brick façades and stone cornices tumbling into the streets and forcing thousands of people to evacuate homes and buildings as the whole Pacific Northwest region was hit by a deep, rolling tremor lasting up to 30 seconds.

A powerful earthquake rocked Seattle yesterday, sending brick façades and stone cornices tumbling into the streets and forcing thousands of people to evacuate homes and buildings as the whole Pacific Northwest region was hit by a deep, rolling tremor lasting up to 30 seconds.

Initial reports suggested there were mercifully few casualties, with no deaths reported and only about two dozen injuries, three of them serious. But the quake, which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale and could be felt as far afield as Salt Lake City, 600 miles away, caused extensive property damage, knocked out electricity in 17,000 homes and offices and closed schools and airports. Gary Locke, the Washington state governor, declared a state of emergency and said damage could run into billions of dollars.

Television pictures showed gaping holes in roofs and façades. Falling bricks and stonework smashed on to pavements, twisted parking meters and damaged parked cars. The 90-year-old corporate headquarters of the Starbucks coffee chain, had to be evacuated after part of its façade crashed into a car park below.

At the downtown Westin Hotel, a conference on education and technology was interrupted just as Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, was about to speak. Delegates elbowed each other to reach the exits as ceiling panels and overhead lights crashed to the ground, and Mr Gates himself was hurried off the stage to safety.

Heather Lindsay, a Seattle resident caught offguard at her hillside home in the Queen Anne neighbourhood, said: "We were swaying. Everything in the house rattled and I rushed under a doorway. I didn't think there was any damage, but I'm now just seeing a crack in the ceiling that wasn't there before."

The control tower at SeaTac International airport, south of the city, was hurriedly closed and evacuated as parts of the glass exterior smashed to the ground. Flights at the airport were suspended, and passenger terminals were emptied while the damage was assessed.

Another landmark, the futuristic tower known as the Space Needle, was also affected as 25 to 30 people were stranded on its viewing level. With the lifts deemed unsafe, they made their way down on foot.

Much of the worst damage was in the older parts of the city, near the Elliott Bay waterfront and in older neighbourhoods south of downtown. Many of Seattle's more modern buildings have been designed to withstand earthquakes. Office workers in downtown skyscrapers described how they were swung alarmingly from side to side.

The epicentre was about 35 miles south-west of Seattle, near the Washington state capital, Olympia. A large crack appeared in the dome of the state Capitol building, where government workers, state senators and visiting schoolchildren linked hands as they filed out. "The chandelier started going and the floor started shaking. Someone yelled get under the table and so we did," said Bob Morton, a state senator.

Overall, the region seemed to cope well, given the force of the quake. "I think we have weathered it," Seattle's Mayor, Paul Schell, said. "It looks so far as if everything is working."

Although less widely known as a fault zone than California, Seattle sits on the same San Andreas fault that runs through San Francisco. In recent years seismologists have expressed concern about the newly discovered Seattle Fault, which runs east-westunder the city. A year ago, Craig Weaver of the US Geological Survey predicted a quake of 7.0, saying he expected the Seattle basin to "shake like a bowl of Jello".

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