WASHINGTON: One of the strongest earthquakes to strike the US east coast in decades rattled offices Tuesday in downtown Washington and caused anxious evacuations from skyscrapers as far away as New York.
The Pentagon, the US Capitol and monuments in the nation's capital were all evacuated after the 5.9-magnitude quake, which was shallow with its epicenter only 0.1 miles (kilometers) underground.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, but the temblor also hit as emergency officials warned of a possible strike on the east coast of Hurricane Irene, which was roaring through the Atlantic.
The North Anna nuclear power plant near the epicenter of the earthquake at Lake Anna, Virginia automatically shut down without incident and no damage was apparent, a spokesman for Dominion Power said.
"We did lose on-site power, but all the diesel generators are up and running," Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher said 30 minutes after the quake. "Everything appears to be operating just fine."
Seismologists from the US Geological Survey said the epicenter was 27 miles (47 kilometers) from Charlottesville, Virginia, and 87 miles (139 kilometers) from Washington, where Reagan National Airport also ordered some evacuations.
In Washington, a national park helicopter was seen circling the Washington Monument, inspecting the towering landmark for cracks.
Only minor damage was reported in Washington as the quake shook plaster from walls and, according to a CNN report, knocked damaged pinnacles from the National Cathedral.
The cathedral said on its website that it was closed pending an investigation of damage.
The US Geological Survey said the earthquake was the largest in the state of Virginia since May 1897, when a 5.9 quake struck in Giles County, near the western edge of the state.
"This is one of the largest earthquakes on the east coast in quite a while, in many decades at least," USGS spokeswoman Lucy Jones told CNN. "It's not unprecedented. But it's one of the largest we've had there."
The quake was felt as far away as Martha's Vineyard, around 500 miles (800 kilometers) away, off the coast of Massachusetts, where President Barack Obama was playing golf during his vacation. And some reported feeling the impact in locations as distant as Toronto to the north, and Atlanta to the south.
In New York, thousands of people poured onto the streets as evacuation procedures put into place after September 11 attacks were activated.
Police in New York herded people toward local parks away from tall buildings as precautionary checks were started.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance had just started speaking at a press conference about the sensational Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case when the building started shaking.
Fatima Richardson, 28, who was sitting on the steps of courthouse on her lunch break said: "You could see the building moving. I was just freaking out."
The Pentagon, the world's biggest office building located across the Potomac from the capital, ordered a brief evacuation, which was carried out calmly. Several hundred people streamed out of the building and officials said there was no damage other than a ruptured water line.