By The Associated Press
8:49 PM EDT, August 23, 2011
The most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast in 67 years shook buildings and rattled nerves from South Carolina 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 immediate reports of deaths, but fire officials in Washington said there were at least some 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 40 miles northwest of Richmond, Va.
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.
The earthquake came less than three weeks before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and in both Washington and New York it immediately triggered fears of something more sinister than a natural disaster.
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 U.S. Park Service closed all monuments and memorials on the National Mall, and ceiling tiles fell at Reagan National Airport outside Washington. All flights there were put on hold.
In lower Manhattan, the 26-story federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, 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.
Another, Adrian Ollivierre, an accountant, was in his office on the 60th floor when the quake struck: "I thought I was having maybe a heart attack, and I saw everybody running. 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."
New York District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance was starting a news conference about the dismissal of the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, when the shaking began. Reporters and aides began rushing out the door until it became clear it was subsiding.
In Washington, the National Cathedral said cracks had appeared in the flying buttresses around the apse at one end.
"Everyone here is safe," the cathedral said on its official Twitter feed. "Please pray for the Cathedral as there has been some damage."
Shaking was felt as far south as Charleston, S.C., and as far north as Maine. It was also felt on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, where Obama is taking summer vacation and was starting a round of golf when the quake struck at 1:51 p.m.
Obama led a conference call Tuesday afternoon on the earthquake with top administration officials, including his homeland security secretary, national security adviser and administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By the standards of the West Coast, where earthquakes are much more common, the Virginia quake was mild. But quakes in the east tend to be felt across a much broader area.
"The waves are able to reverberate and travel pretty happily out for miles," said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough.
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.
Amtrak said its trains along the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore and Washington were operating at reduced speeds and crews were inspecting stations and railroad infrastructure before returning to normal.
More than 12 million people live close enough to the quake's epicenter to have felt shaking, according to the Geological Survey. The agency said put the quake in its yellow alert category, meaning there was potential for local damage but relatively little economic damage.
The USGS said the quake was 3.7 miles beneath the surface.
The Virginia quake came a day after an earthquake in Colorado toppled groceries off shelves and caused minor damage to homes in the southern part of the state and in northern New Mexico. No injuries were reported as aftershocks continued Tuesday.