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Rare earthquake shakes New York, sending residents scrambling

People stand in a square outside the NY

People stand in a square outside the NY courthouse after evacuating. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images) Photo Credit: People stand in a square outside the NY courthouse after evacuating.(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Image)

A 5.8 earthquake centered in Virginia jolted much of the East Coast Tuesday, giving New York City its biggest shaking in decades as surprised office workers scrambled down to the streets from swaying towers and countless residents marveled at what they’d just experienced.

The quake, whose epicenter was just outside of Richmond, Va., was one of the most powerful ever recorded on the East Coast. It rocked Gotham at 1:51 p.m. and lasted for about 30 seconds. That was long enough to temporarily shutter the city's airports and delay flights along the East Coast, prompt crack inspections of the Holland Tunnel, snarl cell-phone service — and put the lie to the idea that big quakes are the sole province of the West Coast.

"It was crazy, the first thought I had was that the building was crumbling down," said Frank Schulterbrand, 62, who was inside a building on 34th Street during the afternoon temblor. Indeed, office floors swayed, overhead lamps swooned, and New Yorkers wondered what to do.

"I looked at the blinds and they were moving, and I said to myself, 'It was time to get out of there,' " Schulterbrand added.

Rattled East Coasters rushed to file dispatches on Twitter, with Tweets hitting 5,500 per second, more than after the death of Osama bin Laden and similar to the Japan quake and tsunami.

City Hall was evacuated, as were buildings across the city, but no injuries or deaths were reported, officials said. The MTA said there were no service disruptions, and FDNY said that aside from a water tower in Red Hook, it didn't get reports of other damage in the city.

Buildings in the nation's capital were also evacuated, including the White House and the Pentagon, and spires at the National Cathedral were damaged. Some injuries were also reported in D.C.

Two nuclear plants in Virginia shut down automatically as a precaution, as they would during any earthquake. Up in Martha’s Vineyard, the vacationing President Barack Obama was playing golf when the quake happened, though reported he didn’t feel it.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was at work in City Hall when he felt the quake that, among other things, brought an abrupt end to District Attorney Cy Vance’s news conference about Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

"For many people this was a stressful afternoon, but so far we've been lucky to avoid any major harm," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

(with Marc Beja, Erik Ortiz and Reuters)

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