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Staffers who were working in the Capitol said the building felt like it was swaying, noting that the chandeliers were swinging from side to side.
"At first, it was like someone was shaking my chair," one staffer said. "Then it got harder, so I stood in a doorway until it passed."
As soon as the shaking was over, officers started evacuating the building as a safety precaution, sending an alert to House staff at 2:35 p.m. Senate staff started conducting business by cellphone on the corner of Delaware and Constitution avenues Northeast.
Sen. Chris Coons was in Washington to gavel in the Senate’s pro forma session when the earthquake hit. The Delaware Democrat, who was outdoors preparing for a television interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, sat on the ground when the shaking began to make sure “it wasn’t me,” he said.
The pro forma session was moved from the Senate chamber to the Postal Square Building next to Union Station on Massachusetts Avenue because of the earthquake. It was held “in a room that is prepared for off-site briefings in the event of an emergency,” said Coons, who gaveled in the session from a folding table in front of a Senate seal that had been pinned to a curtain. The session began about an hour late and lasted just 22 seconds.
The last time either chamber convened outside the Capitol was for a joint special meeting at Federal Hall in New York City on Sept. 6, 2002, to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That meeting, however, was not a formal session of Congress.
Tuesday was Coons’ first time presiding over a pro forma session, and he said “it was a little unusual” to conduct Senate business away from the Capitol. But he added that he was impressed with the way the matter was handled by the Senate floor staff.
“There was a complete, previously prepared kit that had the Senate seal, flags, gavel procedural material, and the whole Senate floor staff relocated to the Postal Square site to conduct the pro forma session,” Coons said. “It reinforces the confidence I already had.”
The pro forma sessions are being held to prevent President Barack Obama from installing recess appointments. The next session is set for 11:15 a.m. Friday.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger was working on a bill in the House Intelligence Committee room in the Capitol Visitor Center when he felt the shaking. Others in the room feared it was a bomb. “I knew it wasn’t a bomb because we were shaking left to right, left to right. A bomb would have gone outwards then inwards,” the Maryland Democrat said while standing outside near the Cannon House Office Building.
He was impatient for the Rayburn garage, where his car was parked, to reopen. “I wish we could get our cars so we could move out,” he said. “I want to go back to work.” Inspectors cleared the Russell, Hart and Dirksen garages on the Senate side before the garages on the House side.
One of Ruppersberger’s staff members said plaster and light fixtures fell from the walls of the lawmaker’s Rayburn office during the quake.