Strong earthquake shakes Utah, rattles frayed virus nerves
Authorities do not expect to find severe damage from the 5.7-magnitude earthquake, but the timing is particularly trying.
By Brady McCombs and Linsday Whitehurst
SALT LAKE CITY — A strong earthquake struck Salt Lake City Wednesday, damaging some roads and buildings, shutting down a major air traffic hub and scaring millions of people already on edge from the coronavirus pandemic.
The 5.7-magnitude quake just after 7 a.m. showered bricks onto sidewalks, sent a chemical plume into the air outside the city and damaged a spire and statue atop the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' iconic Salt Lake Temple.
The epicenter was just southwest of Salt Lake City, between the city's international airport and the Great Salt Lake. The temblor and its aftershocks were felt by about 2.8 million people. Most were hunkered down inside their homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when buildings started shaking, and many ran outside to the streets in panic.
This is extremely bad timing, because we already have the coronavirus issue going on right now causing a lot of anxiety," Gov. Gary Herbert said.
There were no reports of injuries in the hours immediately after the 7:09 a.m. quake, Utah Emergency Management spokesman Joe Dougherty said.
Operations at Salt Lake City International Airport came to a halt, planes were diverted and the control tower and concourses were evacuated.
Far fewer people than normal were in the airport. On a typical travel day, the airport would have had about 24,000 people inside it and more making connections. But there were just 9,000 there, said the airport's executive director, Bill Wyatt, making an evacuation of the terminal easier.
Marsha Guertzgen of Evanston, Wyoming, was about to board a flight when the quake struck and said "pandemonium and chaos" immediately erupted in the terminal — only to be heightened by each aftershock.
Everybody was running around, they were scared I don't think they knew what was going on," she said. "People were screaming, kids were screaming, people were climbing under things."
No runway damage was found and most of the damage in the terminal appeared to be caused by a broken water line, Wyatt said. Cargo and non-commercial flights resumed late Wednesday morning, but commercial flights were delayed into the afternoon.
The quake also shut down the light rail service for Salt Lake City and its suburbs. It caused the release of chemicals at Kennecott copper mine west of Salt Lake City, creating a visible plume that moved toward the Great Salt Lake, said Clint Mecham, Salt Lake County's emergency manager.
Officials have not identified the chemicals sent into the air in the plume, but Mecham said it was not expected to affect people since it's moving away from populated areas.
Residents reported feeling shaking across a 100-mile (160 kilometer) area, with the heaviest impact in Salt Lake County, officials said.
Some residents ran from their homes and into the streets as they felt the earthquake shake buildings for 10 to 15 seconds.
The underlying concern about the coronavirus outbreak was evident in the response to the quake.
Paramedics and fire crews responding to emergency calls asked people to first disclose if they have symptoms. If they did, the crews geared up with masks, gowns and gloves before attending to them, officials said.
Health officials' coronavirus response operations were briefly disrupted by the earthquake. Some virus testing was delayed and the state's coronavirus hotline was temporarily shut down while damage assessments were conducted.
Michelle Daneri, 30, said the coronavirus outbreak had kept her mostly inside her Salt Lake City home since last Friday, but she emerged from it after the quake to search for her frightened cat. She chatted with her neighbors outside but stood apart from them.
"We're trying to check on each other but we're also trying to keep our distance," Daneri said. "I think we at least stood about 5 feet away from each other."
The experience made her wonder how to take precautions against the virus if she could not stay in her home.
It makes me feel a little bit on edge in my house, when that felt like a safe space," Daneri said.
There were reports of damage in Salt Lake City and in the communities of Magna and Kearns, but authorities said they did not expect it to be severe. Fire officials in Magna said 14 structures were damaged.
There was damage to roads and bridges and natural gas leaks were reported at state government buildings, said Utah Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson.
In Salt Lake City, bricks fell off the side of a homeless shelter and the Salt Lake Temple sustained minor damage, with the trumpet held by the Angel Moroni falling from the statue at the top of the temple and stones displaced from a spire.
The temple is undergoing renovations and a seismic upgrade. Construction crews were sent home while the damage is being assessed, church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in a statement.
But authorities did not expect to find severe damage in most structures, said Dougherty, the emergency management spokesman.
"We're hearing of lights falling down, bookcases falling down, we've heard of water lines breaking inside of buildings," Dougherty said.
People reported feeling the quake in the neighboring states of Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada.
About 73,000 homes and businesses lost electricity in the Salt Lake City area, but power was quickly being restored in some areas, said utility Rocky Mountain Power.
It was the largest earthquake to hit Utah since a 5.9 magnitude quake shook southern Utah in 1992, according to Utah Emergency Management.