Covering the Earthquake

Earthquake – is one word enough for my lede paragraph? If you don’t think so, feel free to come up with your own earth shattering pun.

Wednesday started quietly for me. I left my place just after 7:30am as I do every day. I walked about five minutes and realized I forgot my Spec ID badge. “Oh well” I said to myself. I may need it, but I’m too lazy to turn back. Yeah, the one day I actually needed it.

I came into work with the goal of finishing up a GO section article about a breast cancer survivor’s dragon boat team called *Knot-a-breast *which recently won a major dragon boat festival. (I’ll be writing more about them in an upcoming blog post)

I played around with the article most of the morning and was never really happy with it. I really should’ve let it go at 10am, but I didn’t. This would prove to be a fateful decision – it kept me in the newsroom.

*The Hamilton Spectator *supports a local elementary school and Wednesday’s was the annual *Spec vs. Kids *soccer game at Hess Street School. I attended Hess Street and I was looking forward to visiting my old school and enjoying a nostalgic tour.

The developing news story of the day was a weather system that was bringing severe winds, lightning, and torrential downpours to Michigan and crossing into Southern Ontario around noon. I was monitoring this system closely and decided – it being a seemingly slow news day – that I would do a crowd-sourcing collaborative project when the storm finally reached Hamilton.

The newsroom appeared to be short on staff – The Spec operates with very stretched staff – as noon approached. I decided that I needed to track the storm and update TheSpec’s website as it approached. With the morning reporter, John Burman, finishing his shift at 1pm, I decided to stay in the newsroom.

I spent the time from 12 noon to 12:45 playing around with my GO article – trying to make myself happy with it. At 12:45, I turned my attention to setting up the Google Map.

At 13:30, I thought about going for lunch across the street from the Spec building. I looked around the news room and seeing there were only two other reporters – both of whom were working on assignments – I instead went over to the senior story editor’s desk.

I told the editor that in the unlikely event that something interested came up, I could be pulled from my project and set out to cover it.

There was no way I would leave the news room undermanned in case of a major news story occurring. (That’s my military experience showing. One always has capacity to respond to the unexpected and never leaves a command post undermanned.)

I went back to my desk thinking about getting out of the building at 14:00. when hopefully people start coming back from the soccer game.

For the next 10 minutes, I was busy creating the Google Map. At 13:39, I loaded up the Buffalo weather radar – the rain wasn’t close yet. Back to laying out the Google map.


Next thing I knew, my desk was vibrating. My first reaction was to curse – in my mind – the construction crews working at the front of the third floor. Somebody on the other side of the newsroom who was standing yelled “Is it raining outside?”

It sounded like hail was hitting the room of The Spectator building. There was this low-level vibration with the “hail”

Things were happening so fast, yet so slow at the same time. I’ve trained to deal with high stress situations and danger – despite it being army training, my instincts cued in. Things slowed down.

I stood up, turned around towards the front of the building and looked out the window – having checked the radar moments ago, I was shocked by the noise. I’m not too sure if I said or merely thought it. I’m pretty sure I shouted “It’s not raining.”

Someone shouted, calmly; “I think it’s an earthquake.”

I looked around, there were no doorways nearby – just the empty expanse of the newsroom. I glanced under my desk – wires and bags – that wouldn’t work. I saw the letters editor outside the editorial page doorway. There was someone with her. The doorway was too far away.

I calmly sat back down and grab onto my desk for support. I was now facing back towards the rear of the building. I saw the columns of the building shaking.

The entire floor was swaying, I’ve never experienced anything like it on land. I could only compare it to compare it to being on a small water craft. It was maybe 12 seconds, but it took a long time.

The Spectator building is built onto an old creek bed that once served as a garbage dump for the city. I believe these soil conditions amplified the vibrations causing the effect of the tremor to be exaggerated.

Then, the shaking stopped. In a split second, I stood up and looked at the senior story editor. We made eye contact. There was a dead moment of complete silence …

Then, the phones lit up – people were calling. I was shouting for confirmation they had experienced the quake outside the building – I wanted to tweet. The editorial assistant handling the phones confirmed.

I shouted “calling the University of Western Ontario – they run the seismic network for the region.”

I loaded up their webpage, got the number, and started dialing. I shouted “permission to tweet.” Apparently, I was immediately given permission, but I waited until I was absolutely sure that I had permission. I can’t say how long that was. It was maybe 30 secs. Thankfully, TheSpec’s visual/web editor tweeted immediately after the quake:


A screen capture of TheSpec’s tweets immediately preceding and following the tremor. The first is my tweet, the second is the visual/web editor’s, and the third is my tweet about the Google Maps weather project.

It’s a good thing the editor tweeted, his tweet was perfect: “Did you feel a tremor? Let us know what you felt and where you are?” From what I can tell, we were the first outside of Ottawa to tweet. Even if TheSpec wasn’t, we were within seconds.

My tweet on TheSpec account was underplayed – let’s just say that @JoeyColeman would have been clearer. That account would say: “Just felt the earth shake, any geo-nerds out there?” I didn’t have time to worry about updating my personal account. I was in The Spectator newsroom and the building had just shook pretty hard – who knows how bad it could be out in the city.

The tweets were out. The replies were flooding onto my screen. I left a message with UWO. I loaded up the The Southern Ontario Seismic Network website – nothing, I loaded up the United States Geological Survey’s earthquake page – nothing. I shouted to the news room, still nothing on the websites. I’m still working the phones. I realize, the tremor had hit the centre of the Canadian media universe – Toronto – and there was no way I’d be getting answers on the official lines or any GTA university. I called the University of Manitoba in the hope of receiving confirmation that their seismograph had picked something up – remember that no one’s been able to actually confirm an earthquake.

(The fact it’s called the Ontario earthquake by so many in the Canadian media shows how self-centric we are as a group – it happened in Quebec)

While I’m doing this, I’m watching the web for the USGS website to get its first report up. I needed to get info and get it out there.

Meanwhile. The news room is abuzz with activity. The emergency services scanners are going – somebody’s paying attention to them, I’m not. The phones are going off the hook – everyone’s answering them.

The editor-in-chief, publisher, and management of TheSpec have came t

o the news room. I noticed them, but didn’t pay attention. The editor-in-chief said something about getting stuff on the web – the new editor is a digital thinker. The publisher was in the newsroom trying to find out what happened. He’s a former editor-in-chief who stays out of directing the news room but is comfortable visiting.

I couldn’t see the visual/web editor or web editor. The two of them were about twenty metres away from me. I’m not really sure if they are at their desks – there is a sea of people blocking my view.

Somebody asked – should we evacuate?

I decided I’m not going if they do – TheSpec doesn’t have the capacity to operate outside the building and I can’t update TheSpec site from my Blackberry. I’ll know what’s going on, but that doesn’t help anyone else.

Remember – the vibration on the third floor of the Spec was intense from my viewpoint. The scanners are going – I’m assuming it may be bad in the city and I have to man my post.

Nothing more becomes of the evacuation idea.

Maybe ten minutes passed. I still haven’t been told what to do – I shouldn’t need to be and I’ve shouted towards the editors telling them what I’m doing anyway.

Our senior story editor calmly and quickly organized the newsroom.

Me, I’m working to get information, trying to juggle the replies coming in on Twitter and working in my own little bubble to gather information.

I’m not getting anything and I’m frustrated.

I’ve always “enjoyed” watching earthquake data on the USGS website. I’ve always thought “wow, they’re fast.” When you feel the earth shake, they’re not fast enough.

The senior news editor came to my desk, asked where I was at in gaining information. I tell her, she asked if anyone else can do the web information gathering.

I said yes.

She wanted reaction from people – she said that clearly. She asked if I can get downtown.

I said yes.

I grabbed my netbook, threw it in my bag. Blackberry in hand. I’m ready to go. There’s a crowd of people as I move from my desk. Someone shouts, the school board building’s been evacuated.

The fire department’s there.

I’m told by an editor – I’m pretty sure the senior story editor – to see if I can get there quickly and find out what’s happening.

I dash full speed out of the news room.

Down the stairs I go, I shout clear to make sure no one steps in my way – I’m moving full speed. Someone jokes I caused the building to shake. I laugh – things are getting back to normal.

I dash for the gate release button to get out of the building. I run out the door – people are looking at me weird. They probably didn’t feel the quake – I don’t know this.

Out the door, I jumped over the stairs.

Four people, looking at me weird.

I’m running full speed. I see the express bus on the bridge – I need to keep up my speed. The bus passes me as it approaches the stop.

Someone’s at the bus stop, I still need to hurry – every second counts even if the bus will wait for me.

The driver knows me. I’m huffing and puffing – I just gave it my all.

He’s wondering what the big story is – he knows I’m in a rush. I tell him – there was just an earthquake.

It’s 1356. He was driving, he didn’t feel it. Nobody on the bus felt it. I wonder if it’s really an earthquake. I remember the 1998 quake, I didn’t feel it. I was on a bus. There was damage in the city – I shelve questions about if the quake was actually that bad.

I need to get downtown.

The bus moved fast, traffic’s not bad.

We come over the Queen Street hill.

I see the fire trucks – go towards the light I tell myself. We passed the building,

I take a photo on my Blackberry:


The bus stopped a block past the scene. I lunged off the bus sprinting for the School Board headquarters. I find senior officials – no injuries but they say it was intense. I check ed other downtown buildings.

I ran building to building. I’m covered in sweat when I return to the news room and filed this story: No damage reported at key towers downtown

Wow, I experienced an actual earthquake.

If you’re interested, here’s a seismograph provided to me at The Spectator by the Geological Survey of Canada: (click to open the hi-res image in a new window – it’s well worth the bandwidth)


An interesting day in *The Hamilton Spectator *newsroom Wednesday for sure.