‘Earthquake terror’ recalled by Letterkenny man

A Letterkenny man has dramatically described how an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale in his adopted US home of Washington DC was a terrifying experience.

Gavin Toner told the Democrat: “I would like to say I was brave and not bothered by it, but to be honest, I was absolutely terrified. I had never been through anything like this before, the whole building was shaking and bouncing and I didn’t know if it would come down or what was going on.”

It was largest earthquake recorded there since 1897. The National Cathedral in downtown DC, lost the top of 3 of its 4 large spires. The quake rattled the east coast of America on Tuesday afternoon and, on Capitol Hill, a senate session was forced to convene a few blocks away in a remarkable off-site session which lasted only 22 seconds.

From Ballyraine in Letterkenny, Gavin explained how the drama unfolded. “I work about 10 minutes north east of Washington DC on the top floor of a 10-storey office building. At around 2pm here, I was at my desk when I felt a rumble and the filing cabinet in the office started to shake. There was nothing then for about 20 seconds and we were wondering what was going on because I’ve been here 11 years and never even heard of an earthquake.

“So, after about 20 seconds the second shake came. This was much more violent, the whole building was shaking, almost felt like it was bouncing. The desks and furniture in the office were moving. Not flying all over the place, but like they were dropped onto a big football or something.

“That was when everyone started to panic. We didn’t know if any more tremors were coming, and we didn’t know if there was any damage to the building. We turned on the radio to hear what was going on. They were reporting that the Pentagon and Capitol building were being evacuated. Some thought it may have been another attack initially,” Gavin explained.


Once the local radio stations got hold of the National Geological Service, they confirmed it was an earthquake that originated about 80 miles south of DC. While Gavin and his work colleagues were told to be aware of aftershocks, they didn’t feel any.

“All the mobile phones were down, I assume because of the volume of traffic, with people trying to call family.”

His wife Helen from Enniskillen in Fermanagh is a sonographer at a hospital in Virginia. She was in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) there when the earthquake hit.

She said she was worried because she couldn’t remove the baby she was scanning as it was hooked up to machines, but thankfully the tremors passed. She also said that the quake there split the floor in the Emergency Room - not a big or serious split, but broke the surface, Gavin confirmed.

The earthquake was felt right through the north eastern seabord into New England, from New York and on up into Connecticut and Maine. While there were reports of chimneys collapsing on to cars in some places, there was no widespread damage. This was apparently due to the type of hard rock under the earth and the fact that the Teutonic plates are not like the seismic plates that result in more devastating earthquakes on the west coast.

Gavin summed up his experience: “It was a lot easier to be brave an hour after the fact.”