The shaking felt gentle, like someone grabbing my chair. Until the rumbling came I didn’t think earthquake. When I did my mind quickly passed my flimsy desk and decided on the stairwell as a safe place to be. When I got there a wave of people swirled around me. There was no way to avoid the group of anxious, crying people, instead I moved with it, going barefoot so I didn’t risk slipping and getting trampled. The shaking stopped before we reached the bottom of the stairs, but the building security shouted at us to get out of the building and into the street.
The street filled with confused people, all of them trying to get cell phone service when there was none to be had. People whispered terrorist attack, others said earthquake. Building after building emptied, until cars could barely move. Now a second wave of security personnel ordered us out of the street, but demanded we stay away from the buildings. They sent us to a small park we used as a meeting place during fire drills. Arriving in the space I barely had time to relax when the squawk of a bullhorn cut through the noise of the crowd. We were to move again, this time to the National Mall. We would be evacuated by bus from there.
Except there were no buses ringing the wide open space, only ice cream vendors who had already quadrupled the price of water bottles. I watched two men come to blows over 16 ounces of Aquafina, and quickly moved on. I went toward the Washington Monument, thinking the promised buses would be there. Along the way I passed FBI staff, who told each other loudly ‘we’re FBI, we’re going back to work’ but none of them moved. I asked what it was, earthquake or terrorism. Instead of answers I started a debate. I walked away before it finished.
I found a Smithsonian security guard, and asked again.
“Earthquake,” she decided. “And the Fed’s not re-opening. Everyone should just go home.”
“On the buses?”
“Yeah, sure.” Her voice was decidedly unsure.
I walked farther, found a DC cop. “Are there buses?”
“I don’t see any.”
“So how are we getting home? Metro?”
“Metro’s shut down.”
(Later I would find out he was wrong. My friends would tell me of packed stations where knees and elbows flew causing near riots, trains that seemed to run more to the good sides of town than the bad, and station masters who walked off duty after cursing loudly that their pay wasn’t worth this.)
“So how do we get home?”
“You could walk.” He pointed toward the bridge in the distance. I started walking.
I passed two other officers. They had less to tell me. Their radios weren’t working, they had no communication. I made it to the bridge, my home state stood on the other side of twinkling water. An officer stopped me from crossing, this bridge was closed to pedestrian traffic. Why? He didn’t know. He didn’t have radio service either. He told me to try the Memorial bridge and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. I got the message and went back to walking.
I passed a snack shop at the base of the Washington Memorial. The workers clustered in the shade, the store closed like every other federal building. Tourists came up and demanded to use the bathroom. The workers shifted in the heat, looking at each other, wondering if they should break the rules. The man screamed at them, demanding to know if they spoke English and why they wouldn’t answer. Not wanting to see another fight, I left.
With no phone calls and no text messages getting through I walked wondering about the people I cared about, if they were safe. I found a boy’s ball cap on the sidewalk, picked it, brushed it off, and kept the sunburn on my face from getting worse. I dunked the cap in a water fountain, cooling my hair. I found a vendor who had only doubled the price of water and bought two bottles. And I walked more.
I walked until I felt blisters form on my feet. I walked when they broke, filling my business heels with a squish. It was when I stopped that the pain came, and I struggled to start again. Two blocks from a metro bus stop, I asked the group gathered there if anyone had seen a bus. They hadn’t but one would come soon, it was already an hour later, how much later could it get?
I knew I couldn’t walk any farther, but I didn’t trust the bus. Across the street traffic stood still, I watched for cabs. The first three wouldn’t acknowledge me, a single rider in the back looked away. I waited. The fourth cab driver would take me, and I made him turn around, circle back to the bus stop.
“I have room for two more,” I called out, and two women grabbed at the chance to get out of the city. The ride should have taken 15 minutes. It took 45. It should have cost $11. I paid $45 and considered myself lucky.
I consider all of us lucky. The earthquake was such a small thing. I’d always thought dystopian fiction had it wrong, that it would take a lot to break down society. Last Tuesday I learned otherwise.