WELLS, Nev. Aftershocks continue as this old railroad town begins rebuilding today after a devastating 6.0 earthquake that was felt as far away as Salt Lake City.
It's the aftershocks keeping people rattled with the ground moving in waves, as one after another hits the town on the heels of the Thursday temblor that damaged dozens of buildings but left only three people with minor injuries.
But as the aftershocks continue, so does the worry and rumors of another, bigger one.
"Did you feel that?" people ask each other, worry in their voices.
"I think everybody in this town has been impacted," Wells Mayor Rusty Tybo said.
The quake was epicentered about 12 miles east of Wells, a town of 1,600 people about 140 miles west of Salt Lake City. Despite its proximity, scientists said there was no relation to the Wasatch Fault that runs through highly populated areas of Utah, and that it was extremely unlikely to trigger any movement of that fault.
"It was terrifying," said Mike Elton. "It was a loud rumbling. It was like a great big storm. Everything was just waves."
Most of the town was asleep or just waking up when the quake hit at 6:16 a.m. Nevada time.
"The whole room went sideways and up and down," said Jon McLaren. "The front wall cracked. The bookshelf just missed me."
Pat Notestine was beginning her workday at Stuart's Foodtown when the ground started shaking. The ceiling buckled and food flew off shelves at the town's only grocery store.
"It felt like the end of the world," she said.
As many as 30 buildings were significantly damaged or destroyed. Along Front Street, historic buildings crumbled. The Bulls Head bar sign hung precariously over Lake Avenue. A car was smashed by falling bricks in an aftershock.
Brick chimneys crumbled on the rooftops. Wells High School's gym was in danger of collapsing. Ironically, authorities had designated that as a shelter.
"The gym was going to be our relief," said Elko County Undersheriff Rocky Gonzalez. "Now we can't even go in."
Around town, crews painted bright orange circles in the snow to mark buildings and homes that were safe to occupy. A slash or an 'X' through the circle meant it was uninhabitable, and a question mark meant it was unknown.
Engineers are expected to begin evaluating the structures today. Three water main breaks were reported as well as several gas leaks. They were eventually repaired, but a boil-water order was issued for the community. Power was quickly restored to places that had lost it.
About 45 families were displaced by the earthquake and sought assistance from the Red Cross, which brought disaster relief services from Elko and Boise. A shelter was set up at a nearby LDS Church. By late Thursday afternoon, the Wells Elementary School had become a nerve center for emergency assistance being carried out by multiple agencies.
Inside the school, Rick Sharp was overseeing a supply line made up of 16 inmates from the minimum-security Wells Conservation Camp east of Wells.
The inmates, who are at the camp from six months to three years, represent the camp's cooking unit and prepared a meal for residents that evening.
Although many buildings were deemed inhabitable, the elementary school became a refuge because of its sturdiness, said principal Leslie Lotspeich.
"This building is awesome," she said. "It withstood the earthquake like a champ."
Shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, the gymnasium/cafeteria at the school filled with about 350 people looking to share stories, ask questions, eat a hot meal and possibly stay the night. Andrea Woods was one of those people, among the many in Wells whose homes were rattled to their foundations, leaving behind a big mess and shaken nerves.
"I've got a massive headache," said Woods, who didn't plan on spending the night by herself in her home. "I want to cry, but I can't because I've got such a big lump in my throat."
"It was scary, like a freight train coming through the house, like the gates of hell opening up," she added. "There was a sound like a big growl."
Earlier in the day, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons toured the damaged buildings and encountered Dorothy North.
"We really need to make sure that these people are whole," she told him.
"I'm really glad no one was seriously hurt, no one lost their lives," he replied. "I know the way this community is. With a little help, they'll pull together."
Peg Kaplan is unsure if she'll be able to rebuild. She and her husband own the El Rancho Hotel on Lake Avenue, which was nearly destroyed. She was allowed back into her building briefly Thursday afternoon to find some of her cats. They refused to budge from under a bed.
"I don't know if we'll ever recover," she said. "It's a heartbreak."
Felt far away
In Utah, emergency dispatchers were flooded with calls from people who felt the quake from Brigham City all the way to Provo.
Ogden police officer Tim Shelstead was running radar on 7th Street when his car began shaking. "I thought it was a train going by with no train," he said Thursday.
It wasn't until residents started calling emergency dispatchers and the information was relayed over police radio that he realized it was an earthquake.
In Wendover, Utah, Humberto Cervantes was putting on his shoes and getting ready for work when he felt the quake at his apartment near the airport.
"The whole building was shaking," said Cervantes, who lived in Los Angeles for several years and has plenty of experience with temblors. "It was a little bit strong, even for here."
At a casino just a stone's throw across the state line, everyone among a busload of people outside a casino said they felt the quake. One man was playing the slots when his machine started to shake. A little farther down the road at the Desert Discount Liquor Store, where there are a lot of bottles on the shelves, not one fell to the ground.
Aftershocks have people on edge.
At Donna's Ranch, a legal brothel on the outskirts of town, employees crowded into a doorjamb for safety during the quake. Above it, a long crack is visible. Outside, the building's facade is destroyed.
"I've been traumatized all day," said a woman named Carmella. For much of the day, she huddled in the cold outside, afraid of aftershocks. "I was too scared to come back in here," she said.
She is not alone.
As a 4.6 magnitude aftershock struck Wells late Thursday afternoon, people bolted outside into the cold winter air, believing they would be safer.
"You alright? Need some help?" Yvonne Stuart asked her friend, Pam Kaplan as they encountered each other next to a damaged building.
"We're OK for the moment," Kaplan replied. "We're just waiting to see what happens next."
"If you need a place to stay, you can come stay with us," Stuart offered.."We're OK. If we get the cats out, we'll be better off, but it's OK," Kaplan said, her voice finding some resolve. "We're OK."