MINERAL, Va. (CBS4) – Tens of millions of people from Georgia to Canada were jolted Tuesday by the strongest earthquake to strike the East Coast since World War II, and the effects were felt nationwide.
Three weeks before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, office workers poured out of New York skyscrapers and the Pentagon, relieved it was nothing more sinister than an act of nature.
There were no known deaths or serious injuries, but cracks appeared in the National Cathedral, and three capstones broke off its tower. Windows shattered and grocery stores were wrecked in Virginia, where the quake was centered. The White House and Capitol were partly evacuated.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake registered magnitude 5.8. By West Coast standards, that is mild. But the East Coast is not accustomed to earthquakes at all, and this one unsettled some of the nation’s biggest population centers.
In New York and Washington, people said their thoughts were of an explosion or terrorist attack. In some cases, workers in Washington mentioned the tremors in phone calls to colleagues in New York, and seconds later, the shaking reached there, too.
“We thought it was a bomb at first because everyone has 9/11 on the brain and that it’s so close to September and the 10th anniversary,” said Cathy McDonald, who works in an IRS office in downtown Washington.
Hundreds of people spilled out of the federal courthouse blocks from ground zero, workers in the Empire State Building rushed 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.
Dozens of flights into South Florida Airports were delayed. Tatiana Englin flew in from New York City, and describes the impact on JFK.
“I feel it was very bad. I was sitting in the business lounge and my coffee was shaking, my chair was moving,” she told CBS4’s Natalia Zea.
And the quake even struck while these passengers’ flight was taking off from Newark.
“The plane started swerving to the right, that’s when he stopped, put the brakes on and turned around,” said passenger Gil Strauss at M.I.A.
“It was shocking, really shocking to experience something like that, especially in the tri-state area. It’s a first for me.”
The quake was felt as far north as Toronto, as far west as Indiana and Kentucky and as far south as Atlanta and Savannah, Ga. It was also felt on Martha’s Vineyard of Massachusetts, where President Barack Obama, who is vacationing there, was getting ready to tee off in a round of golf.
The White House said there were no reports of major damage to the nation’s infrastructure, including airports and nuclear facilities. Two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station in Virginia were automatically taken off line by safety systems, said Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The plant is in the same county as the quake’s epicenter, about 80 miles southwest of Washington and 40 miles northwest of Richmond, Va.
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.
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, 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 National Cathedral said it had sustained “significant damage,” with three capstones, each shaped like a fleur-de-lis, breaking off the main tower. Cracks appeared in the flying buttresses around the apse at the cathedral’s east end, the oldest part of the building.
“Everyone here is safe,” the cathedral said on its official Twitter feed. “Please pray for the Cathedral as there has been some damage.”
By the standards of the West Coast, where earthquakes are much more common, the Virginia quake was not strong. 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 waves are able to reverberate and travel pretty happily out for miles,” said USGS seismologist Susan Hough.
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.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)