Buildings emptied, monuments closed, trains and planes were halted, and people ran in terror into the streets after a rare earthquake measuring 5.8 jolted the eastern United States, stunning millions who consider temblors a California problem and who, in many cases, simply couldn’t believe what was happening.
“This is an ACTUAL EARTHQUAKE ALERT,” read a notice posted on New York’s emergency management website, minutes after the quake sent the city’s high-rises and bridges swaying.
Rumor had it that the Washington Monument was tilting: “Simply not correct,” said Bill Line of the National Park Service, which closed the monuments on Washington’s National Mall just in case. But late Tuesday night, the Associated Press reported that a crack had been found near the top of the monument, and it would be closed indefinitely.
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries across the several states that felt the quake, but there was “significant damage” to the National Cathedral in Washington, said spokesman Richard Weinberg. Three finials fell from corner spires, in addition to other damage.
In Mineral, Va., a town of about 400 people near the quake’s epicenter, the roof of the brick town hall partially collapsed, and the middle and high schools sustained significant damage.
“I knew it was either an earthquake or a bomb, and it lasted too long for a bomb,” said Scott Keim, fire chief of Louisa County, where Mineral is located. “It appeared the walls were moving.”
The town, about 85 miles south of Washington, has “had a few rumbles here and there, but nothing like this,” Town Manager Willie Harper said.
Winery hostess Marie Wright was in a tasting room at Cooper Vineyards, near Mineral, when the earthquake hit.
“All of a sudden, the wine bottles started crashing down and I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” Wright said. “I grabbed the vineyard dog and ran out of there.” Afterward, the tasting room floor was covered in puddles of wine from broken bottles.
“It was really awful,” said 10-year-old Jose Tellez, who was in his fourth-grade class in Mineral and compared the sensation to a roller-coaster ride. “It was like a terror,” said his father, Luis.
Amanda Reidelbach, a spokeswoman for Louisa County, said one residence in Mineral toppled to the ground but no one was inside.
David McIntyre, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the agency was monitoring the situation at the North Anna nuclear plant in Louisa County, which reported an “alert” after the 1:51 p.m. EDT quake. An alert is the second most serious of four status positions for a nuclear plant.
But he said there was no indication of a problem at the plant or any of the other 10 East Coast power facilities. The others reported an “unusual event,” the least serious warning, after the quake.
With the threat of terrorist strikes on the minds of New York and Washington as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches, the shock was especially unnerving.
“In D.C., when you feel the building rumble, the first thing that goes through your head is you get worried that this could be an act of terrorism,” said Zach Cikanek, press secretary to Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.). Cikanek and his colleagues were getting up from their desks to investigate the initial shaking, and then came an “elevated tremor that raised everyone’s alarm bells,” he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake might be the strongest to ever hit central Virginia. “It’s an unusually large event for the eastern U.S.,” said Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist with the agency in Pasadena.
It struck a geologically old area of central Virginia that is made up of faults formed hundreds of millions of years ago, said Kate Hutton, staff seismologist at Caltech.
Hutton said a key difference between East and West Coast quakes is in the extent of the shaking. Because Earth’s crust on the East Coast is not as fractured as in California, there are fewer faults to break up the seismic energy.
“The result is that the quake is felt over a much wider area,” Hutton said.
This quake was felt from South Carolina to Rhode Island, and reactions ranged from horror to humor as sirens blared, 911 phone lines lit up, high-rise buildings emptied of residents clutching children and pets, and streets filled with stunned people.
Brinkley’s Pub in Lower Manhattan quickly put up a sign outside offering an “earthquake special. Come shake it up with a pint.”
For many in the nation’s capital, this was their first experience with an earthquake.
“At first we weren’t sure exactly what it was, but as we heard the Capitol Police officers and other staff shouting evacuation orders, we knew it was serious,” said congressional staffer Rachel Semmel, who fled without her keys or wallet. “For a brief moment during evacuation it was very scary.”
Hundreds of Pentagon workers rushed for exits when the ground began shaking. An announcement clarified minutes later that it was a quake, not an attack. The only damage was a broken water pipe.
Capital schools were evacuated, and officials said “a number” of campuses sustained minor damage and two students received minor injuries.
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer said there was structural damage to some buildings in the Capitol complex and “a couple of minor twisted ankles” as people evacuated.
“Aside from people being a little bit anxious and nervous,” most Capitol employees are fine, he said. “We’ve had officers being murdered, incoming aircraft, the threat from 9/11, anthrax, ricin — so this is a community very experienced at various man-made and natural threats.”
Not so in Mineral, where aftershocks of an emotional kind were being felt hours after the quake as darkness fell on the town.
“I’ve been on edge the whole day,” said Chris Bantz, who was driving when the quake hit and held tightly onto her rocking car. The rest of her day was a flurry of activity: checking on friends and on a family farmhouse outside of Louisa County, which was seriously damaged. “Every time a truck goes by, I tense up.”
Mason reported from Mineral, Simon from Washington and Susman from New York. Times staff writers Geraldine Baum in New York; Hugo Martin, Tony Barboza and Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles; and Lisa Mascaro, Kathleen Hennessey, Kim Geiger, Katherine Skiba and Neela Banerjee in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.