WOONSOCKET – Medical receptionist Lisa Gillespie was going about her chores on the eighth floor of the Cornerstone Building yesterday afternoon when something that isn't supposed to happen did.
“I felt a tremor,” said Gillespie. “The first thing I did was look behind me to see if anyone else felt it, and one of my co-workers confirmed that she did. The patients in the waiting room felt it, too.”
The source of the quivering at the former Marquette Building was a powerful earthquake that struck Virginia about 1:50 p.m. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake registered a 5.9 on the Richter scale and was centered about 83 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
Though Rhode Island is hundreds of miles away, 911 operators throughout the state received numerous calls from people who'd felt the shock. There were similar reports all along the Eastern seaboard, from the Carolinas to New York.
“I was scared,” said Gillespie. “That's not normal.”
Based on multiple calls to the Woonsocket Fire Department, dozens of workers were ordered to evacuate the Cornerstone, whose tenants include the Visiting Nurse Service and Citizens Bank.
Occupants of several other architectural anchors of the Social District, including Bank of America, Thundermist Health Center and Kennedy Manor – the public high rise for seniors – were either ordered to evacuate by the fire officials or did so on their own, said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.
There were no signs of structural damage at the Cornerstone, but building inspectors, firefighters and police officers crisscrossed the parking lot while fidgety evacuees milled about, wondering what to do next.
Some who gathered outside the 10-story glass tower – the tallest building in the city – were incredulous of the tremor reports and dismissed the public safety response as overblown.
“Somebody said something so they called the fire department and the fire department evacuates the building so now it's got to be inspected before people can go back in,” said John Boucher, the owner of the building. “Everybody's scratching their heads saying, 'why is this happening' and “what am I doing out here.'”
But Fontaine said it's better to be safe than sorry.
“Clearly you have to clear the buildings to make sure you don't overlook something,” he told reporters outside the Cornerstone. “Certainly it's worth the review just to make sure people are safe.”
Workers from the VNS said they didn't feel tremors, but they could see the liquid in the water cooler quivering at the same time the quake was reported.
Gillespie, who works at the Blackstone Valley Center for Internal Medicine, said patients were watching television in the waiting room when the building shook. Moments later, the programming was interrupted with a news flash about the Virginia quake.
Esther Yearwood, the office manager, said her sister lives in Hampton, Va. Yearwood said she was worried so she called her sister to check in on her.
Yearwood found out her sibling was quite shaken by the quake. Literally.
“Her windows were rattling,” said Yearwood.