WASHINGTON (AP) — Shaking ground and swaying buildings sent panicked people rushing for exits, pouring into streets or diving under desks. For some in Washington and New York and elsewhere along the East Coast, their first thoughts turned to terrorism– not nature.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., was walking up Capitol Hill on his way to preside over a pro-forma session of the Senate when Tuesday’s earthquake hit. Feeling the ground sway, he sat down on a bench.

“My concern was that it was something other than an earthquake,” Coons said. He ended up presiding over a 22-second technical session in a conference room of a building near the Capitol.

A quake was not the first thought either for Lisa Goeas, who works in a building a few blocks from the White House and near a city subway station.

“Our building is right across the street from the Metro, so we thought a bomb went off,” said a shaken Goeas, who fled her office with her colleagues.

At the majestic Washington National Cathedral, at least three of the four pinnacles on the central tower fell off, a spokesman said.

The pinnacles are the top stones on the cathedral’s towers. Cracks appeared in the flying buttresses at the cathedral’s east end, the oldest part of the structure.

The earthquake centered in Virginia– the most powerful quake to strike the East Coast in 67 years — was felt as far south as South Carolina and north to Massachusetts, where a vacationing President Barack Obama was about to tee off in a round of golf on Martha’s Vineyard. Reporters said they felt the temblor, but it didn’t keep Obama from continuing play.

As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, recollections of the terrorist attacks of 2001 crossed many minds.

In New York, workers in the Empire State Building spilled into the streets, some having descended dozens of flights of stairs.

“I felt dizzy, man,” said Adrian Ollivierre, a 28-year-old accountant who was in his office on the 60th floor. “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.”

His colleague, Caitlin Trupiano, said no one in the accounting office knew at first that it was a quake.

“I ran down all 60 flights. I wasn’t waiting for the elevator,” she said. “We were just counting the floors as we came down.”

Outside another exit, on 34th Street, waiting with colleagues from a 52nd floor office, software developer Nathan Chaffee described how the tremor felt. “I was sitting at my desk and all of a sudden my chair is going like this,” he said, bending his knees in a repeated bucking motion. “And I thought, ‘Am I falling?”‘

His colleague Marty Wiesner rushed to the window to look out and around. “I thought we’d been hit by an airplane,” he said.

In Washington, the U.S. Park Service evacuated and closed all monuments and memorials along the National Mall. At Reagan National Airport, ceiling tiles fell during a few seconds of shaking.

Officials reported some minor damage at the Supreme Court, including fallen plaster and small shards of marble near elevators.

The Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and federal agencies in and around Washington were evacuated in whole or in part. Many sent nonemergency workers home for the day as officials checked buildings for damage. The Capitol was reopened by late afternoon for people to retrieve personal items and to secure offices as structural engineers checked other buildings in the complex.

“As of now,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said, “tomorrow is expected to be a regular workday.”

At the Pentagon, where a hijacked jetliner crashed on Sept. 11, the shaking sent people streaming into corridors. Light fixtures suspended from the ceiling swayed back and forth in some areas as people were urged to evacuate the building. The main damage reported in the government’s biggest workspace came from a broken water pipe, which led officials to shut down two corridors.

And while the damage appeared to be limited, roads and highways in and around Washington were clogged in the hours after the quake.

Marion Babcock, a mother of four children from Washington, D.C., spent two hours driving home from a bookstore in Alexandria, Va.– normally a 25-minute drive. “It was horrendous,” she said of the post-quake traffic.

She was at the bookstore with her children when the temblor struck and sent lights, ceiling tiles and books falling and her children running. The kids, she said, were frazzled and frightened until they all made it safely home.

“I treated their post-traumatic stress with copious amounts of chocolate mint and cookie dough ice cream,” said Babcock.

Within a stone’s throw of the quake epicenter in Mineral, Va., Zach Whittington had been chatting away on the phone in bed when the house he was in began to rumble.

“It felt like a big giant took it and shook it like a snow globe,” said Whittington, 21, who does landscaping work. “You would have never thought that earthquakes happen out here.”

He spent the afternoon cleaning up the broken pictures and the shattered plates that tumbled during the quake, including nine dessert dishes with their own sayings. “Life is fragile,” read one. “Handle with care.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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