February 28, 2001 – a date forever etched in my memory. It was my retirement date after thirty years of working for the Washington State Department of Revenue. And even though, that, in and of itself, is a significant milestone in my life, it is somewhat overshadowed by events that occurred that same day.
On that particular morning as usual I reported to work at 8:00 a.m. An office retirement party had been held in my honor the day before, so this day was really a clean up and to say goodbye to friends I had worked with for many years. I had been busy during the morning packing up a few of my belongings and attending to a myriad of details. It was now 10:54 a.m.
I was sitting in my office with our new boss plus the three other managers. We were discussing a financial business issue when all of a sudden, the building began to shake. It took a second for it to register, and then all of a sudden we knew! Earthquake! I jumped up past the others in my office, got to my office door, and yelled out to the general population of employees, “Under your desks! Under your desks!” Then I proceeded to run back and get under my desk. I scooted in head first as far as I could get. One of the other managers, Julie, who had been sitting in a chair in my office, attempted to crawl underneath my desk with me. Just that mental picture of the two of us trying to squeeze under my desk is a comical one.
As earthquakes go, this one was a doozy. It measured a 6.8 magnitude and violently shook southern Puget Sound. The epicenter was located approximately fourteen miles from our office building and eleven miles from the State Capitol Building.
The shaking seemed to go on for ever. I could hear my coffee cup jumping around on my desk and was aware of Julie trying to crawl even further under my desk and on top of me. Finally, the shaking stopped, and our Emergency Preparedness Training kicked in. We began evacuating staff just as we had practiced many times. Even the evacuation of our employee in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic, went like clockwork.
Our two-story building was located close to Interstate 5. As staff was evacuating the building, it was surreal to look out the windows as we went down the stairs, and see cars traveling the Interstate like nothing had happened. By comparison, we and our staff we were quite shaken, no pun intended, and our building inside was in shambles. Ceiling tiles had fallen to the floor and some were still hanging askew from the ceiling. Books and papers were strewn all about the floor and chairs were overturned.
After we evacuated the building, some of the employees were crying and it took a bit to calm then down. They were all worried about their own family’s and just wanted to go home. Our boss told them they could go. As a side note, in hindsight, I don’t think that was the right decision at that particular time. In my opinion, for everyone’s safety, we should have stayed in the parking lot by the building until we were assessed of the earthquake damage, as we had no idea what kind of obstacles employees would encounter on their way home, or even more serious, be of hindrance to ongoing emergency efforts.
Still in all, I took this opportunity to check on my home and family. The roads were clogged, but I finally managed to get to my house which was about three miles away from the office. No one was there. However, a beautiful vase filled with red roses that I had gotten at my retirement party the day before was lying on the living room floor in a pool of water. In the kitchen, I found some decorative plates on the floor. As I walked down the hallway, in the first bedroom, the bookcase had fallen over. Books were strewn about, and my son’s Boy Scout Brown Derby car was buried underneath. Next, I attempted to check my bedroom, but the door was partially shut and hard to open. I had stored a piece of wood behind that door, and it had fallen over, partially closing and now blocking the door. I finally got the door open and looked about. The big picture over my bed was now of the floor behind the headboard, and my two end table lamps were on the floor as well.
My son and his family finally arrived at my house. My oldest grandson, Kenny, thought the whole episode was pretty cool. The two younger ones, Michael, six and Jennifer, four, were both still a bit traumatized about what had happened. Michael was quite concerned about the bookcase that had fallen over in the bedroom. We tried to assure him that it was okay, that we’d get to it later. But he persisted in his concern, so my daughter-in-law Bonnie and I finally went in and righted the bookcase and put everything back on the shelves. Michael was in the room with us, and as we uncovered his Dad’s Boy Scout Brown Derby car under the pile of books, he grabbed it and went into the living room.
It’s an interesting dilemma to try and understand just what a child is really trying to express. It seems, for Michael, the whole scary shaking experience almost went away when he finally had something familiar in his hand.
With my family settled at my place, I went back to work that afternoon to finish cleaning up my work space. As I left the building for the last time as an employee, the Disaster Recovery Team, of which I was a member, was meeting in our conference room. It was a freeing experience to walk to the door of that conference room with my work possessions in hand, wish everybody well with the recovery, and walk out the front door guilt free. What a day!
But, it still wasn’t over. Later that evening, my former boss threw me a retirement party at his house. I wasn’t sure how many people would be able or want to show up given what had transpired that day, but there was a wonderful turnout at we all had a great time, not only reliving work stories, but everyone had a story for that particular day. Julie, the manager and my counterpart got up to speak. She talked about work experiences we had shared, and someone mentioned her trying to crawl under my desk right when the earthquake struck. A couple of the other managers who were in my office at the time, said it looked liked she was kissing my patooty goodbye!
The night before the earthquake my son Jason, daughter-in-law Bonnie and my three grandchildren, Kenny, Michael and Jennifer had all been in the State Capitol Building. We climbed all the way to the top to the cupola. We had a beautiful expansive view of the city below and as Kenny and I stood there gazing at the city lights, I said to him, “Boy, I sure hope we don’t have an earthquake about now!”
As far as retirements go, I’d say mine was one for the record books. It’s one I’ll never forget for many reasons, one being that no one that I knew was injured or killed because of the earthquake, second, that my family and I were safe and lastly, I was finally retired! What a memorable day!
By Niela Rockey