ONE of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded on the East Coast of the United States shook buildings and rattled nerves on Tuesday and forced the evacuations of parts of the Capitol, White House and Pentagon.
The earthquake came less than three weeks before the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and in both Washington and New York it immediately triggered fears of something more sinister than a natural disaster.
In lower Manhattan, the 26-story federal court blocks from the site of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, began swaying, and hundreds of people streamed out of the building.
There were no immediate reports of deaths, but fire officials in Washington said there were at least some injuries.
The US Geological Survey said the quake registered magnitude 5.8 and was centered about 64 kilometres northwest of Richmond, Virginia.
In offices across Washington, New York and other major cities on the eastern seaboard, workers panicked as their desks shook with an ominous intensity before many of them raced down the nearest stairways.
In a region days away from commemorating the trauma of the September 11, 2001 attacks, many residents immediately suspected terrorism as they crowded into parks and onto street corners on a thankfully pleasant summer afternoon.
In Washington, Kacie Marano, who works at a think-tank two blocks away from the White House, said that she worried that the earthquake could be something more sinister as the alarms went off and her books fell on the floor.
“Initially I wasn’t sure it was an earthquake,” she said as she waited in a downtown park.
“When we’re so close to the White House, you always have to think whether it’s an earthquake or something else.”
Two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station, in the same county as the epicenter, were automatically taken off line by safety systems, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Roger Hannah said.
US President Barack Obama, who is holidaying on Martha’s Vineyard, led a conference call about the earthquake with top administration officials, including his homeland security secretary, national security adviser and administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The president was on a golf course when the quake hit. It was unclear if he felt it, but reporters on the island off the coast of Massachusetts said they did.
At the Pentagon in Washington, 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 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.
A magnitude of 5.8 would make the quake among the most powerful to strike the eastern United States.
In 1897, a magnitude 5.9 quake was recorded at Giles County, Virginia, the largest on record in that state.
East Coast earthquakes are far less common than in the West, but they tend to be felt over a broad area.
“The waves are able to reverberate and travel pretty happily out for miles,” US Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough said.
Railway service 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.
Social media site Twitter lit up with reports of the earthquake from people using the site up and down the US eastern seaboard.
“People pouring out of buildings and onto the sidewalks and Into Farragut Park in downtown DC,” tweeted Republican strategist Kevin Madden.
John Gurlach, air traffic controller at the Morgantown Municipal Airport was in a 12-metre tower when the earth trembled.
“There were two of us looking at each other saying, ‘What’s that?”‘ he said, even as a commuter plane was landing.
“It was noticeably shaking. It felt like a B-52 unloading.”
Immediately, the phone rang from the nearest airport in Clarksburg, and a computer began spitting out green strips of paper – alerts from other airports in New York and Washington issuing ground stops “due to earthquake.”