MINERAL, Va. – The most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in 67 years shook buildings and rattled nerves from Georgia to Maine on Tuesday. Frightened office workers spilled into the streets in New York, and parts of the White House, Capitol and Pentagon were evacuated.
There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.
The National Cathedral said its central tower and three of its four corner spires were damaged, but the White House said advisers had told President Barack Obama there were no reports of major damage to the nation’s infrastructure, including airports and nuclear facilities.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake registered magnitude 5.8 and was centered 90 miles southwest of Washington. It was mild by West Coast standards, but the East Coast is not used to quakes of any size, and this one briefly raised fears of a terror attack less than three weeks before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
“I thought I was having maybe a heart attack, and I saw everybody running,” said Adrian Ollivierre, an accountant who was in his office on the 60th floor of the Empire State Building when the shaking began. “I think what it is, is the paranoia that happens from 9/11, and that’s why I’m still out here – because, I’m sorry, I’m not playing with my life.”
Two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station, in the same county as the epicenter, were automatically taken off line by safety systems, said Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
At the Pentagon, a low rumbling built until the building itself was shaking, and people ran into the corridors of the complex. The shaking continued there, to shouts of “Evacuate! Evacuate!” The main damage to the building, the largest single workspace for the federal government, came from a broken water pipe.
The Park Service closed all monuments and memorials on the National Mall, and ceiling tiles fell at Reagan National Airport outside Washington. Many nonessential workers in Washington were sent home for the day. The Capitol was reopened by late afternoon for people to retrieve their things.
In lower Manhattan, the 26-story federal courthouse, blocks from ground zero of the Sept. 11 attacks, began swaying, and hundreds of people streamed out of the building.
The New York police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, was in a meeting with top deputies planning security for the upcoming anniversary when the shaking started. Workers in the Empire State Building spilled into the streets, some having descended dozens of flights of stairs.
“I thought we’d been hit by an airplane,” said one worker, Marty Wiesner.
Shaking was felt as far south as Charleston, S.C., as far north as Maine and as far west as Cincinnati and Atlanta.
By the standards of the West Coast, where earthquakes are much more common, the Virginia quake was mild. Since 1900, there have been 50 quakes of magnitude 5.8 or greater in California alone. Quakes in the East tend to be felt across a much broader area.
The Geological Survey put the quake in its yellow alert category, meaning there was potential for local damage but relatively little economic damage.
The agency said the quake was 3.7 miles beneath the surface, but scientists said they may never be able to map the exact fault. Aftershocks may help to outline it, said Rowena Lohman, a seismologist at Cornell University. There were at least two aftershocks, magnitudes 2.2 and 2.8.
The last quake of equal power to strike the East Coast was in New York in 1944. The largest East Coast quake on record was a 7.3 that hit South Carolina in 1886. In 1897, a magnitude-5.9 quake was recorded at Giles County, Va., the largest on record in that state.