WASHINGTON (WJZ) — Imagine the terror felt by tourists inside at the very top of the Washington Monument on that quiet summer afternoon when the earth shook.
Park Ranger Niki Williams tells Adam May it’s a day she’ll never forget as she fought back fear to get everyone out safely.
On the sunny afternoon of Aug. 23, the earth shifted.
“It was like a bomb going off around you,” said a witness.
Panicked callers flooded 911 centers as the ground and buildings began to shake.
It’s bad enough on the ground, but what was it like for people trapped 500 feet in the air inside the tallest tower in the nation’s capital?
“As it started to shake, I was absolutely terrified,” said park ranger Niki Williams.
Williams was with dozens of terrified tourists at the top of the Washington Monument.
It felt like a terrorist attack. In reality, at 5.8 magnitude, it’s the strongest earthquake we’ve ever felt around here.
“I began to hear noises coming from the elevator I’ve never heard before,” Williams recalled. “And the public starts to look at me, wondering what’s going on, and then the walls of the metal elevator start to shake.”
Caught on tape, surveillance cameras showed Williams leaping into action.
She ran to yank open an emergency exit door, desperately racing to get tourists safely out, dodging chunks of granite and marble raining down from above.
“My initial thought was that we were under attack. That a bomb had gone off at the base of it maybe,” said Williams.
Visitors, who seconds before were enjoying the view, started screaming in mass confusion. Williams rushed everyone out to safety.
“It wasn’t until two minutes later when I’m walking down the stairwell and a police officer comes on my radio and tells me it was an earthquake,” said Williams.
May: “Were you thinking the top of the tower was going to crumble with you inside?”
Williams: “As we’re going down the stairwell even, it’s shaking so hard that it knocks me into the railing so that’s when I’m wondering. I’m looking at the blocks wondering if they’re, whether they’re going to stay where they are in front of me or fall down as well.”
“It’s a building with no mortar,” Williams said. “There’s nothing holding those stones together.”
Hundreds of chunks of stone crumbled off the monument that day. That stone was actually quarried in Baltimore County, back in the middle 1800s.
One of Washington’s most famous landmarks suffered far more damage than originally thought. Specially trained engineers rappeled the perimeter, discovering many cracks wide enough to see through and 40 pound chunks of stone that are dangerously loose.
Until everything is repaired, the monument is closed and Park Ranger Williams will never be the same.
May: “When you look back at the video, what’s your reaction to it?”
Williams: “I start to physically shake. I was absolutely terrified when that building started to move.”
Realizing how a few seconds can change your life.
Williams was so moved by this experience, she may join the Park Service’s Search and Rescue team.