There were no major injuries reported nor severe damage, but the 45-second earthquake that hit the East Coast Tuesday afternoon gave millions of people a thorough and efficient education in what Westerners already know: earthquakes are frightening.
"It scared the heck out of me. I'm still shaking," said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
In rural Mineral, Va., the quake's epicenter, Marilyn Gutekenst was clearing lunch dishes from a table on her backyard deck when the trees began shaking and the deck started to vibrate. "I thought it was a runaway train" she said. "I thought, 'I don't belong here. I need to move quickly.'" She ran inside to see picture frames fall off the wall, plates drop and break, and bookcases topple.
The quake was felt along the Eastern Seaboard from Georgia to Canada. The East's tightly-packed earth crust carried the quake's seismic power farther than an equivalent quake in the West's spongier terrain, according to Lucy Jones, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. Shaken and shocked, tourists poured out of the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian museums. At the Empire State Building in New York City, workers ran down 60 flights of stairs although there had been no announcement to evacuate.
The earthquake measured 5.8 in magnitude, but tweeting about the temblor was off the scale. Social networks lit up with quake reports, commentary and, quickly, jokes. "D.C. Earthquake Devastation" was the caption on a heavily re-tweeted photo of a toppled lawn chair.
"I saw the tweets from DC about earthquake, then 15 seconds later felt it in NYC. Social media is faster than seismic waves!" wrote Jesse Friedman, an Internet marketer in Brooklyn.
Though Virginia hadn't had a quake like Tuesday's in 67 years, it was mild by West Coast standards. California has seen 35 quakes of that size since 1944, when the last East Coast quake of this magnitude occurred. So the first thing everyone had to do was figure out what was happening.
To John Gurlach, air-traffic controller at the Morgantown Municipal Airport in West Virginia, it felt like a B-52 releasing its payload. To Karen Schaefer, stopped at a traffic light in Raleigh, N.C., it felt like being on a swaying suspension bridge. "But I knew I wasn't on a suspension bridge,'' she said. "I was, like, 'Is this an earthquake?' and I said, 'No, this is Raleigh, N.C.' "
At W.P. Stewart, an investment management firm on Madison Avenue in New York, desks started squeaking as the walls behind them moved. "It felt like someone jumped up and down next to you,'' said Lauren Penza, 32. "I was looking out the window and I could see what I was looking at moving.''
As a fire warden for the 21st floor, she checked to make sure everyone was out before she left. With her was Kristina Munsch, 31, who had no intention of hanging around for an announcement. "The room shook,'' she said. "It's not one of those things you can wait for.''
At first, "I thought it was just me,'' said Al Peace, 39, an employee of the Park Avenue law firm WilmerHale. When a second wave hit, "I thought the building was going to collapse.'' About 20 employees left, including Peace's colleague Brian Rudolph. "They said, 'Did you feel it?' I said, 'No, I'm busy getting Cheap Trick tickets on the computer,''' Rudolph said. But he left anyway.
Halley Pack, a 24-year-old paralegal, was putting on her sneakers in the basement-level gym of her office building in downtown Washington when the shaking started.
"I've never been in an earthquake before," she said, standing in her exercise clothes outside her office building at 2:20 p.m. "I thought something was wrong with me, like I had a headache."
"I thought someone was barreling up the road with a trash truck, but the whole house shook, and we heard dishes rattling," said Shaun Gallagher of the Forest Brook Glen development near Newport, Del.
"It felt and sounded like a big gust of wind came through. I looked outside and the trees weren't even moving," said Jean Carsten, 59, who was at home in Bayville, N.J., when she felt the tremors. "My husband said, 'That was an earthquake.'"
Perhaps inevitably, with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching, some people immediately feared terrorism.
Lloyd Stafford, 71, of Boca Raton, Fla., was with his grandchildren at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., when he heard "a major thump to the building'' that caused gift shop merchandise to tumble to the floor.
"The guards looked up, and then they said, in alarm, 'Everybody out, everybody out!" And then somebody said, "We think it's a bomb.'' That really motivated everybody to get out of there. They were all kind of scrambling around,'' he said.
Back in Mineral, Va., Louisa County spokeswoman Amanda Reidelbach said three of the county's six schools suffered heavy damage. Several buildings collapsed, but, she said, "We were lucky." Only minor injuries were reported.