A strong earthquake rattled the US east coast on Tuesday, sending tremors as far as Canada, damaging well-known buildings in the US capital and sending scared office workers into the streets.
There were no reports of major damage or serious injuries from the magnitude 5.8 quake, which was centered in Mineral, Virginia, about 145km southwest of Washington.
It was the largest quake in Virginia since 1897 and struck at a shallow depth, increasing its potency.
The Pentagon, White House and US Capitol were evacuated in Washington, and thousands of alarmed workers scurried into the streets up and down the east coast as the lunchtime quake sent items crashing down from store and office shelves.
“We were rocking,” said Larry Beach, who works at the US Agency for International Development in downtown Washington. “It was definitely significant.”
Federal workers were sent home early.
Washington’s National Cathedral, host to state funerals and memorial services for many US presidents, suffered damage with three spires in the central tower breaking off.
The US east coast does not normally experience quakes as strong as Tuesday’s. The US Geological Survey said the quake was of magnitude 5.8, downgrading an earlier estimate if magnitude 5.9.
Earthquakes of magnitude 5.5 can cause damage to buildings and other structures.
As if a rare strong earthquake were not enough, the east coast was also on alert for powerful -Hurricane Irene, which was heading up from the Caribbean and could hit over the weekend.
The quake made chandeliers sway in the US Capitol and the floor of the US Senate shook before staff headed for the exits. Some minor damage could be seen in the rotunda, under the dome of the Capitol.
Bits of paint and plaster fell from high on the walls and chunks of plaster fell fell from above a doorway in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The US Congress is in recess so most members were away.
“I thought at first somebody was shaking my chair and then I thought maybe it was a bomb,” Senate aide Wendy Oscarson-Kirchner said.
Phone service was disrupted throughout the region as network congestion blocked cellphone users from making calls.
There were also nuclear safety fears when one of four emergency diesel generators at the North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia lost power because of the quake and automatically halted operations.
The plant operated by Dominion Resources was designed to withstand an earthquake of up to magnitude 6.2, a company spokesman said. Dominion reported no major damage to the facility.
Three generators were needed to keep the reactors’ radioactive cores cool. A fourth diesel unit failed.
In New York, the tremors prompted evacuations of courthouses and City Hall, and halted work at the World Trade Center construction site.
“What a spooky, strange feeling,” said Billy Simeonidis, the owner of BareBurger in Brooklyn. “You just don’t have any control. I don’t know how they do it on the west coast.”
The US National Park Service says engineers have found a crack near the top of the Washington Monument presumably caused by the earthquake.
Park service spokesman Bill Line said on Tuesday night that structural engineers found the crack where the 170m landmark narrows considerably.
He says the monument will be closed indefinitely to keep the public safe.
An outside engineering service was to study the crack yesterday.