Remember the Time an Earthquake Shook Philadelphia In 2011

On August 23, 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Virginia shook Philadelphia. We look back.

Comcast Center

A photo I took on the day of the earthquake five years ago, if my photo archive timestamps are correct | Photo: Dan McQuade

If you’re looking for information on the Great Philadelphia Earthquake of 2024, go here.

Five years ago today, my world shook — literally.

Five years ago today, I worked on the 17th floor of the Comcast Center. I worked a 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift, which was almost up. Then, the shaking started.

I actually knew it was coming. While scanning Twitter, I saw a handful of tweets from people in Washington, D.C. They reported shaking. When my desk started to shake ever so slightly, I knew we were getting an earthquake.

It was over quickly. It was not that bad. The main sight I remember was the rooftop pool across the street from the Comcast Center — the water was going back and forth for minutes after the quake ended. Some of my coworkers were terrified — a few people just left, immediately. But once people figured out it was just a small earthquake, and not something more serious, we were fine.

Then came an announcement over the loudspeaker. Whoever was making it seemed out of breath. “There has been,” the voice said, and then a loud pause and an exhale, “an earthquake.” This person now sounded terrified. There hadn’t been any structural damage to the building, the voice said, and work could continue. Those who evacuated should return to the office to finish the day. We shouldn’t be worried.

The tone of his voice said otherwise. Some of my coworkers, previously calm, were now scared. What did the Disembodied Comcast Voice know that we didn’t?

After about 10 minutes, a second, calmer voice came on the loudspeaker. The message went something like this: “Although there has been no structural damage to the building, Comcast has decided to close the offices for the day.” People exhaled. There was a mad rush to the elevator bank — so mad a rush that they were all full, and people on my floor began to walk down the steps.

Seventeen flights later, I was free. Of course, it was now past 2:30 p.m. and I was free to go anyway. But still! I went to Oscar’s Tavern with some bosses. It ended up being a great afternoon. Everyone had an interesting small talk conversation: Where were you when the earthquake hit? A friend of mine said he thought the ceiling tiles at his work were going to cave in. A woman I know said she thought she was still drunk from last night. One of my bosses said his first thought was that an angry customer had bombed the Comcast Center. Later, I found out that Comcast employees all received emails about how the building was safe but it was OK to leave — but not me, as I was just a contractor. (We permalancers got them the following day, for some reason.)

My waitress at Oscar’s, Dee, hugged me after seeing my tweet telling people to go to Oscar’s for post-earthquake drinks.

There wasn’t much damage in Philadelphia, except to peoples’ nerves. The Associated Press reported the extent of the damage: “In downtown Philadelphia, a window shattered on a lower floor at the Independence Blue Cross building, while a worker on the 30th floor of the 45-story building said her tea spilled.” Across the river in Camden, a vacant home partially collapsed. That was about it.

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake was centered in Louisa County, Virginia. It was felt as far away as Florida and Ontario. But no deaths occurred. Reported injuries were minor. The damage was minor, too, though the earthquake did cause the closure of the Washington Monument for several years.

So. I’m not saying we should have more earthquakes, but the one we did have is a pretty good memory.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.