An earthquake struck near Salt Lake City Wednesday morning, shutting down a major air traffic hub, damaging a spire atop a temple and frightening millions of people already on edge from the coronavirus pandemic.
Though there were no reports of injuries and no damage was immediately reported in areas along the Utah-Idaho border, there was damage scattered in the Salt Lake City area — with the earthquake showering bricks onto sidewalks and releasing a chemical plume outside the city.
The epicenter was just southwest of Salt Lake City, between the airport and the Great Salt Lake. It was felt by about 2.8 million people, including some from as far as Southeast Idaho. Many people in the area were already hunkered down inside their homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and some of them reportedly ran outside in panic amid the shaking that lasted as long as 15 seconds.
“This is extremely bad timing because we already have the coronavirus issue going on right now causing a lot of anxiety,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said.
At the Salt Lake Temple, the trumpet held by the Angel Moroni fell from the statue at the top of the temple and stones were displaced from the spire. The temple is undergoing renovations and a seismic upgrade. Construction crews were sent home while the damage was assessed, church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in a statement.
The tremor ruptured a water line in the D concourse at the Salt Lake City International Airport, halting operations for about five hours. The road to the airport was closed at around 8:15 a.m. and planes were diverted to several nearby airports, including two in East Idaho, as crews worked to repair the burst line and assess the entire facility for damage.
Pocatello and Idaho Falls were among the cities to take on some of the diverted flights.
Two planes, a Boeing 747 and a CRJ200 carrying approximately 40 total passengers, landed at the Pocatello Regional Airport and three planes carrying around 150 total passengers landed at the Idaho Falls Regional Airport early Wednesday morning, airport officials said.
Pocatello’s airport manager, Alan Evans, said most passengers waited for the planes to resume their flight plan while others rented cars to complete their journeys. The last diverted plane departed from Pocatello to Salt Lake City around 1:30 p.m., Evans said.
“We were fortunate in that there were not a ton of people on these aircraft,” Evans said. “The way it worked out there was plenty of space for the waiting passengers to feel comfortable.”
Two passengers from Mercedes, Texas, on a flight headed for Salt Lake City, Randy Moore and Brittany Hanney, who were catching a connecting flight to Sacramento, California, were among those diverted to Pocatello.
Hanney said, “I’ve never been to or even heard of Pocatello before,” and Moore added, “I woke up expecting to be in Salt Lake and was in Pocatello instead not knowing why.”
Jayme Verish, the airport assistant director in Idaho Falls, said Wednesday morning that the majority of the passengers there were also waiting in the terminal to see how quickly the Salt Lake City airport would be able to reopen and begin accepting flights again.
”Right now we’re playing a waiting game to see how the situation develops down in Salt Lake,” Verish said.
The Salt Lake City International Airport control tower and concourses were evacuated. Far fewer people than normal were in the airport, due to the coronavirus precautions.
On a typical travel day, the airport would have had about 24,000 people inside and more making connections. But there were just 9,000 on Wednesday, making an evacuation easier, said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City airport.
Marsha Guertzgen of Evanston, Wyoming, was about to board a flight when the quake struck. “Pandemonium and chaos” immediately erupted in the terminal — only to be heightened by each aftershock, she said.
“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. Elsewhere, there were reports of fallen lights and bookcases.
Salt Lake International Airport officials announced around 11:30 a.m. its facilities were structurally sound and authorized general aviation and cargo plane arrivals and departures. At 1:15 p.m., airport officials had completed their security sweep, repaired the ruptured water line and began allowing passengers back into the airport.
In addition to Southeast Idaho, people reported feeling the quake in the neighboring states of Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada.
The quake shut down light-rail service for Salt Lake City and its suburbs. The chemical plume was released at Kennecott copper mine west of Salt Lake City and moved toward the Great Salt Lake, said Clint Mecham, Salt Lake County’s emergency manager. Officials have not identified the chemicals involved, but Mecham said it was not expected to affect people since it’s moving away from populated areas.
Residents reported shaking across a 100-mile area, with the heaviest impact in Salt Lake County, officials said.
Paramedics and fire crews responding to emergency calls asked people to first disclose if they have symptoms of coronavirus. If they did, the crews donned masks, gowns and gloves before attending to them. Some virus testing was delayed by the earthquake 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 Friday, but she emerged after the quake to search for her frightened cat and chatted with her neighbors outside.
“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.
Damage was reported to roads and bridges, and natural gas leaks were reported at state government buildings, said Utah Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson.
Near the epicenter of the quake in the small town of Magna, 14 buildings were damaged and 100 people were evacuated, Unified Fire spokesman Matthew McFarland said.
Homer Conder was among the residents who came to look at the damage after feeling the quake as he was drinking his coffee.
“I stood up to move and it took me right off my feet,” said Conder, a retired mechanical designer. “I narrowly missed getting hit in the head with a piece of pottery.”
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.
The Post Register and Herald Journal contributed to this report.