5.8 quake rattles US East Coast

Crack found in Washington Monument

BOB LEWIS
Last updated 14:40 24/08/2011

Strong earthquake rattles US East Coast

EVACUATED: The US Capitol Building in Washington DC.
Reuters
EVACUATED: The US Capitol Building in Washington DC.

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The most powerful earthquake to strike the East Coast of the US in 67 years shook buildings and rattled nerves from South Carolina to Maine early today (NZ time).

Frightened office workers spilled into the streets in New York, and parts of the White House, Capital and Pentagon were evacuated.

There were no immediate reports of deaths, but fire officials in Washington said there were at least some injuries.

The National Cathedral said its central tower and three of its four corner spires were damaged and engineers have found a crack near the top of the Washington Monument presumably caused by the quake.

US National Park service spokesman Bill Line said that structural engineers found the crack where the 169-metre landmark narrows considerably.

He says the monument will be closed indefinitely to keep the public safe.

An outside engineering service will study the crack tomorrow (NZ time).

The 91,000-ton monument is made of Maryland marble.

The White House said advisers had told President Barack Obama there were no reports of major damage to the nation's infrastructure, including airports and nuclear facilities.

The US Geological Survey said the quake registered magnitude 5.8 and was centred 70 kilometres northwest of Richmond, Virginia.

Two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station, in the same county as the epicentre, were automatically taken off line by safety systems, said Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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.

At the Pentagon, 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.

In lower Manhattan, the 26-story federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, blocks from ground zero of the September 11 attacks, began swaying, and hundreds of people streamed out of the building.

The New York police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, was in a meeting with top deputies planning security for the upcoming anniversary when the shaking started. Workers in the Empire State Building spilled 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.

Another, Adrian Ollivierre, an accountant, was in his office on the 60th floor when the quake struck: "I thought I was having maybe a heart attack, and I saw everybody running. I think what it is, is the paranoia that happens from 9/11, and that's why I'm still out here — because, I'm sorry, I'm not playing with my life."

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New York District Attorney Cyrus R Vance was starting a news conference about the dismissal of the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, when the shaking began. Reporters and aides began rushing out the door until it became clear it was subsiding.

In Washington, the National Cathedral said cracks had appeared in the flying buttresses around the apse at one end. "Everyone here is safe," the cathedral said on its official Twitter feed. "Please pray for the Cathedral as there has been some damage."

Shaking was felt as far south as Charleston, South Carolina, and as far north as Maine. It was also felt on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, where Obama is taking summer vacation and was starting a round of golf when the quake struck.

Obama led a conference call on the earthquake with top administration officials, including his homeland security secretary, national security adviser and administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

By the standards of the West Coast, where earthquakes are much more common, the Virginia quake was mild. But quakes in the east tend to be felt across a much broader area.

"The waves are able to reverberate and travel pretty happily out for miles," said US Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough.

The last quake of equal power to strike the East Coast was in New York in 1944. The largest East Coast quake on record was a 7.3 that hit South Carolina in 1886. In 1897, a magnitude-5.9 quake was recorded at Giles County, Virginia, the largest on record in that state.

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 epicentre to have felt shaking, according to the Geological Survey. The agency said put the quake in its yellow alert category, meaning there was potential for local damage but relatively little economic damage.

The USGS said the quake was 6km beneath the surface.

The Virginia quake came a day after an earthquake in Colorado toppled groceries off shelves and caused minor damage to homes in the southern part of the state and in northern New Mexico. No injuries were reported as aftershocks continued today (NZ time).

In Charleston, hundreds of workers left the state Capital building and employees at other downtown office buildings were asked to leave temporarily.

"The whole building shook," said Jennifer Bundy, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. "You could feel two different shakes. Everybody just kind of came out on their own."

In Ohio, where office buildings swayed in Columbus and Cincinnati and the press box at the Cleveland Indians' Progressive Field shook. At least one building near the Statehouse was evacuated in downtown Columbus.

In downtown Baltimore, the quake sent office workers into the streets, where lamp posts swayed slightly as they called family and friends to check in.

Around Mineral, Va., a small town close to the epicenter, people milled around in their lawns, on sidewalks and parking lots, still rattled and leery of re-entering buildings. There was least one aftershock.

All over town, masonry was crumpled, and there were stores with shelved contents strewn on the floor. Several display windows at businesses in the tiny heart of downtown were broken and lay in jagged shards.

Carmen Bonano, who has a one-year-old granddaughter, sat on the porch of her family's white-frame house, its twin brick chimneys destroyed. Her voice still quavered with fear.

"The fridge came down off the wall and things started falling. I just pushed the refrigerator out of the way, grabbed the baby and ran," she said.

Twitter and Facebook lit up with reports of the quake.

"People pouring out of buildings and onto the sidewalks and Into Farragut Park in downtown DC," Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, posted on Twitter.

John Gurlach, air traffic controller at the Morgantown Municipal Airport was in a 40-foot-tall 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."

- AP

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