A frightening earthquake jolted Baltimore and much of the East Coast on Tuesday, shaking buildings and rattling nerves. Thousands of people streamed from offices and homes into the afternoon sunshine, stunned by a phenomenon more commonly associated with seismic hot spots like California and Japan.

Area officials reported that the quake caused only pockets of significant damage, and there were no known deaths or serious injuries, locally or nationwide. But the sense of alarm was widespread as mystified residents jammed phone networks trying to reach loved ones and officials scrambled to assess the fallout.

And humans weren't the only ones feeling anxiety: Vibration-sensitive elephants at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore reacted by linking trunks and clustering together.

After the ground shook for several seconds, buildings were evacuated, pushing workers into the streets, and some businesses and agencies shut down for the afternoon. Rail travel was interrupted, and many commuters faced an early, congested rush hour.

Building inspectors quickly fanned out in Baltimore and around the state to check for structural damage, and authorities urged homeowners to look for foundation cracks and other signs of the quake's effects.

The U.S. Geological Survey gave the quake a preliminary magnitude of 5.8, making it one of the strongest on record for Virginia, and one of the strongest ever felt in Maryland.

The quake, centered 35 miles northwest ofRichmond, was felt from theGeorgia to Canada. It struck at 1:51 p.m. The geological survey reported several aftershocks.

While smaller temblors are hardly unheard of in the region, most go unnoticed. Jeffrey Halka, at the Maryland Geological Survey, said the state typically gets two a year that people can feel. Tuesday's was among the few times anyone now alive has ever felt the ground in Baltimore shake that violently.

The thought of an earthquake did not even initially occur to many. Some at first feared terrorism, while others jumped to more mundane conclusions. Chanel Jenkins figured she was just having mechanical trouble when her car began shaking as she hunted for parking downtown.

"I just had work on the car, so I was a little annoyed," said Jenkins, a day care provider and nurse. She was astounded when she saw people pouring out of buildings as she was driving in downtown Baltimore. "I couldn't figure out what happened," she said.

Some workers in Baltimore's World Trade Center said when the waterfront tower began to rock, they feared the worst. "The windows were buckling," said Deborah Harris, who works on the 10th floor. "My first thought was 9/11 and the fact that we work in the World Trade Center."

"Everybody hurried to get to the stairwell. We didn't know what had happened," said Deborah Hawkins-Epps, an administrative assistant who was in her seventh-floor office.

Others missed the excitement altogether. "We didn't feel a thing," said Tennessee resident Sarah Vos, who was inside The Gallery mall downtown at the time with her husband and their two children.

In Baltimore, the earthquake badly damaged the steeple and bell tower at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point. A spokesman for the archdiocese said the church was unsafe to occupy, and he encouraged worshippers to go to nearby Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown instead.

Farther east in Highlandtown, the Order of the Sons of Italy building on Gough Street partially collapsed onto an adjacent doctor's office, leaving piles of brick in the front yard.

In Annapolis, where the historic district dates to Colonial times, several old buildings reported possible damage, including loose or fallen bricks, said Rhonda Wardlaw, a city spokeswoman. Plaster fell off the ceiling in parts of the State House.

In theDistrict of Columbia, a pinnacle at the National Cathedral — the highest point in Washington — sustained significant damage, according to cathedral officials.

The National Mall was closed for a time, and workers evacuated the House and Senate office buildings.

Baltimore City officials warned residents at an afternoon news conference to prepare for aftershocks and to exercise caution around damaged buildings.