- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The largest Virginia earthquake in more than a century jolted the Washington, D.C., area on Tuesday, prompting widespread building evacuations, snarling traffic and sending emergency crews scrambling after reports of superficial damage and minor injuries.

The quake, felt as far away as Maine, Cincinnati and Atlanta, rumbled across the D.C. region at 1:51 p.m., bewildering tourists, residents and workers who spilled onto city streets while offices, schools and attractions were inspected for structural damage.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries from the quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey said was centered about 34 miles north of Richmond, near Mineral, Va., and had a preliminary magnitude of 5.8.

The District’s monuments and museums were evacuated, and Freedom Plaza was jammed with tourists and federal workers who watched as emergency vehicles raced up and down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

The Washington Monument will be closed indefinitely while the National Park Service inspects it for possible damage.

“It felt like nothing I felt before,” said Eben Burnham-Snyder, a Boston native who works at the Ford House Office Building. “It was 10 seconds of confusion, 15 seconds of paralysis, and 15 to 20 seconds of running to the doorway and realizing it really was an earthquake.”

Adding to the confusion, cellphone lines were jammed, prompting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ask users to text or email instead of making calls.

Many workers returned to evacuated buildings after initial inspections, but some commuters were sent home early, swelling downtown traffic and routes exiting the District.

Metro said all trains were operating at 15 mph — significantly slower than usual — while track personnel conducted inspections on the entire rail system, the second-largest in the country. By 6:30 p.m., Metro track inspectors had reviewed 20 percent of the 106 miles of track — or about 21 miles.

Amtrak and regional train service was also disrupted. Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were closed briefly but reopened by late afternoon, federal and city officials said.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said no injuries or significant damage had been reported in the city as of Tuesday afternoon, but inspectors were out in full force to check on schools, buildings, roads, bridges and tunnels. The John A. Wilson Building was evacuated, and nonessential city employees were dismissed during the afternoon.

The quake caused “significant damage” to the Washington National Cathedral, particularly three of four spires atop the building’s central tower, officials said. Several decorative elements were also damaged and the cathedral sustained cracks on interior upper floors and in the flying buttresses around the apse at its east end.

One diner described a panicky scene at Union Station’s packed food court, where many dismissed the first tremor as the rumble of a particularly loud arriving train.

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