A 5.8-magnitude earthquake based in Virginia sent tremors from the nation’s capital to New York City and New England Tuesday afternoon, officials said. Buildings throughout major metropolitan centers in the northeast were evacuated after the quake, and tremors were felt as far north as Bath, Me., and as far south as Hampstead, N.C., with some limited reports of damage reported near the quake’s epicenter in Virginia, where a nearby nuclear power plant was taken offline. Amtrak trains were temporarily halted, and cellphone service was disrupted as calls flooded cellular systems.
While there were only limited reports of damage, the breadth of the quake rattled nerves along the Northeast. The streets of downtown Washington filled with thousands of people on Tuesday afternoon as buildings from the Capitol to the White House were evacuated the 1:51 p.m. quake, which lasted by varying accounts anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds.
Andre Smith-Pugh, a 25-year-old carpentry worker, was high above the Eisenhower Executive Office Building when he felt the shaking.
"It felt like the scaffolding was coming down," he said in an interview. "It felt like a big truck slammed into the side of the building right here at the White House."
He and his work crew climbed down and gathered outside the White House. None were injured, he said, but all were rattled. Reuters quoted Richard Weinberg, a spokesman for the National Cathedral in Washington, as saying “at least three pinnacles on the central tower have broken off” because of the earthquake.
Several buildings in New York City were evacuated, with employees standing in the streets in midtown Manhattan. Rumbles were reported on Twitter from places as far-flung as Martha’s Vineyard, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.
“Our townhouse started shaking a short time ago and branches started to fall off trees and hit our windows and hit our roof like crazy,” said Bill Parks of Hummelstown, Pa. “It lasted about 10 seconds and was as bad as the Northridge after shock I had experienced while visiting in California. I ran outdoors and found my neighbor calling a friend in Virginia who also felt the profound quake. This quake was like none I ever experienced in the East in my life and I am 76 years old.”
Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, head of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Division of Seismology, said the earthquake occurred in a part of Central Virginia that is known as an area of geologically old faults, created several hundred million years ago when the Appalachian Mountains were forming. The area has frequent small earthquakes; the largest previously recorded was one of magnitude 4.8 in 1875.
“We do expect earthquakes to occur here,” he said. “Not as frequently as in California, but this is not a surprise.” He described the Central Virginia earthquakes as “kind of a randomized reactivation of these geologically old structures” as opposed to the tremors that occur along an active fault such as the San Andreas in California.
In Mineral, Va., a town about of about 500 people located four miles from the quake’s center, residents reported extensive damage to items inside homes. China shattered and pictures fell off walls. The Virginia epicenter was just miles from a decades-old nuclear power plant, the North Anna, operated by Dominion Power in Richmond, where two reactors were taken offline, although there were no reports of damage there.
Sherry Gibson, 42, owner of Sherry’s Snip & Style in Mineral, had popped home for a few minutes when the earthquake hit.
“The whole ground just shook and shook and kept on shaking," she said. The noise was so loud, she said, that it sounded like a plane falling out of the sky. China blew out of the cabinet, and her mantel pulled away from the wall.
Some of her neighbors have cracks in their walls, she said, but she had not heard of any injuries and she said the town had not lost electricity.
The tremors were even felt in Boston, where John D. Tuerck said he felt "a discernible swaying on the 18th floor" of his office tower. He added: "Not something one expects here, for sure."
In downtown Manhattan, police officers ordered the evacuation of New York’s City’s Hall a few minutes before 2 p.m., sending Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his staff scurrying out of the building.
Mr. Bloomberg, standing in front of the grand Renaissance-style building, said he had felt the tremors but assumed they stemmed from extensive renovations underway inside City Hall.
"I did feel a little bit of shake," he said."And then it got greater."
"So far," Mr. Bloomberg said, "we have no reports of any damage."
In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, calls of "did you feel that?" could be heard on nearly every street corner.
"I’m from California and I thought, ’that feels like an earthquake, but no, it can’t be an earthquake!’" said Matt Flammer, 23, who was standing in Bespoke Bicycles, the shop where he works on Lafayette Avenue, when the bikes on the wall began to sway.
In Washington, the tremor caused strong shaking in the Capitol, which was quickly evacuated for a structural evaluation. Chandeliers swayed and one short burst shook the centuries-old building. With a pro forma Senate session scheduled, Senate officials gathered across Constitution Avenue to determine how to proceed.
President Obama was in Martha’s Vineyard during the quake and Vice President Biden spent Tuesday in Japan, coincidentally touring areas that were devastated by the earthquake and attendant tsunami earlier this year.
But the biggest jolts occurred closer to the quake’s epicenter in Virginia.
Chuck Thies, 46, a political consultant who lives in Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C., was writing an email on his computer on the top floor of his four-story building when the shaking started. It lasted a harrowing 15 to 20 seconds, he recalled, and within 10 seconds or so of the temblor subsiding, Mr. Thies had folded up his laptop and was barefoot on the sidewalk — standing among dozens of other stunned neighbors.
But before Mr. Thies, who was home alone in his office, bolted his building, which is more than 100 years old, he suspected it was an earthquake or perhaps a major explosion.
“My five-year-old son’s Matchbox trucks started falling off the shelf in succession, and that’s when I realized it was an earthquake,” he said. “And in the kitchen, some dishes that were in the drying rack started rattling loudly against one and other. This place really shook.”
Credit: New York Times