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AN EARTH-SHAKING DAY

Quake sets the Northeast aquiver

Buildings sway, but no injuries or deaths reported

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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Tremors from a powerful earthquake in Virginia reverberated up the East Coast yesterday, shaking buildings and homes in the Boston area for several seconds and rattling nerves for considerably longer.

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake, centered about 40 miles northwest of Richmond, struck the nation’s capital, forcing evacuations at the Pentagon and the Capitol and temporarily shutting down Reagan National Airport and Union Station. Several buildings in New York City were also evacuated.

The quake was felt from South Carolina to New England, but caused minimal damage. There were no immediate reports of death or serious injury.

In Boston, the quake caused downtown buildings, including the Prudential tower, to sway and sent a shiver of confusion and alarm through the city. Several buildings were evacuated and inspected for damage, and a surge of worried phone calls overwhelmed wireless networks.

For a region unaccustomed to quakes, the rumblings, while brief, left a tangible sense of unease that lingered long after any danger had passed.

Some, like Cassandra Barnum, a law clerk working on the eighth floor of the federal courthouse in South Boston, first suspected that the building had been bombed.

“I was nervous,’’ the 26-year-old said. “The building was swaying, and everything was off balance.’’

Fellow law clerk David Seligman was at his desk when the building started to shake, and his mind raced for a reason.

“I was pretty sure I was having a panic attack,’’ he said.

Damaris Ortiz, an employee at a Target store in Dorchester, was in the break room when the table began to shimmy.

“The guys all started screaming,’’ she said. “People were like, ‘ Why are we all getting dizzy?’ ’’

Fearing the worst, Tina Cassidy, vice president at Solomon McCown & Co., told colleagues to leave the downtown building.

“I thought there might have been an explosion or the building was collapsing,’’ Cassidy said. “Earthquake did not enter my mind.’’

As the initial bewilderment faded, people quickly swapped stories about their shared experience. Many rushed to Facebook and Twitter to share and even to crack jokes.

“Earthquakes, shark sightings, and nice weather . . . when did Boston turn into Cali??’’ wrote Pat Connolly of Medford, 28, a physical trainer.

Massachusetts lies in a moderate earthquake zone and experiences several small tremors each year. Scientists cite the Cape Ann Earthquake of 1755 (with a magnitude of at least 6.0) as the last major earthquake to cause significant damage here.

Yesterday, the tremors seemed to affect the area unevenly. While residents on Savin Hill felt shaking for about 10 seconds, people on Castle Island felt nothing, a pattern repeated across the area.

Firefighters raced to 111 Devonshire St. in downtown Boston to investigate reports that the building was leaning. But Deputy Fire Chief Richard DiBenedetto said the building had always looked that way.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency reported no damage or injuries. A spokeswoman for Boston Properties, which owns the Hancock and Prudential towers, said there were no immediate signs of damage.

The temblor delivered “a good shake’’ to Logan Airport and rocked the control tower, said aviation director Edward Freni. But an inspection of roadways and facilities revealed no damage and operations continued.

Nine international flights headed to New York and Philadelphia were diverted to Boston, including a 500-passenger Emirates A380 flying from Dubai to John F. Kennedy airport.

Officials at Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Station in Vernon, Vt., and the NextEra Energy nuclear power plant in Seabrook, N.H., said their plants continued to operate normally.

At the University of Massachusetts Boston, where several construction projects are underway, summer classes were cut short, and workers were sent home early after the tremors, which were felt around 2 p.m.

Dale Freeman, a digital archivist at the library, was at his desk when he noticed his computer screen shaking. Then he heard sounds from above, as if mice were scurrying through ducts. “I had never known a rodent problem in the archives, ever, and I was like, ‘What is that tapping?’ ’’ said Freeman, 49.

In Newton, the tremors rattled cubicles, leaving California native Linda Battaglia to calm her nervous co-workers.

“It was kind of funny because everyone was like: ‘This is my first experience with an earthquake. Linda, what do we do?!’ ’’ she said. “I was like, ‘Everyone, calm down.’ ’’

In Washington, the quake damaged the National Cathedral, the vast Episcopal church that sits on the city’s highest point. Three fleur-de-lis capstones atop spires on the Gothic cathedral’s central tower were dislodged or broken, cracks appeared on the flying buttresses around the structure’s east end, and other decorations were also marred.

Dozens of visitors were inside when the quake struck, and all were quickly ushered out. Teams that will assess the damage and its cost are being assembled, and offers of support flooded in from across the country.

Newton native Jonathan Gerstenhaber, 25, a Drexel University student visiting Washington with friends, had just left the Lincoln Memorial when the quake hit. As the monument shook, he heard screams from tourists. The crowd surged, cameras tumbled down the steps, and shoes fell as tourists scrambled down the steep stairs.

“Families were holding each other, getting children down,’’ said Gerstenhaber’s friend, Armin Darvish of Tehran. “I couldn’t tell what happened. We were just trying to figure out what was going on.’’

Jane Panariello of Milton and her son, Matthew, were just leaving Union Station in Washington after lunch when everything started to shake. At first, she thought it was just the trains. But when items started flying off the shelves of the shops and people started screaming, she realized it was something worse.

Back in Roxbury, 88-year-old Sylvia Vales said she knew immediately what was going on. A Jamaica native, she had lived through earthquakes. This barely registered as a wobble.

“I just kept walking,’’ she said. “It wasn’t that bad.’’

Erin Ailworth, Casey Ross, Andrew Ryan, David Abel, John R. Ellement, Martin Finucane, John Guilfoil, Megan Woolhouse, Theo Emery, Katie Johnston, and Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Correspondents Peter DeMarco, Christina Reinwald, Jeremy C. Fox, Amanda Cedrone, and Alexander C. Kaufman also contributed. Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.