Mineral, Va. 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. 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 Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, which had three capstones break off its tower. Windows shattered and grocery stores were wrecked in Virginia, where the quake was centered. The White House and Capitol were 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 after the quake struck just before 2 p.m. EDT. 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.
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 off 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.