The Capitol and other government buildings were evacuated Tuesday afternoon in the wake of an earthquake.
The 5.8-magnitude quake struck at 1:51 p.m. It was centered northwest of Richmond, Va., but its effects were felt around the nation's capital, as well as in New York City and North Carolina.
Crowds flooded out of the Capitol, the Capitol Visitor Center and the House and Senate office buildings. Groups stood on First Street Northeast until Capitol Police ushered them away.
All buildings in the Capitol complex were closed Tuesday afternoon while the Capitol Police and engineers from the Architect of the Capitol checked for structural damage. No serious injuries were reported to the police.
Structural engineers worked through the afternoon and evening, and the Capitol Police sent out notices as they cleared the buildings one by one for limited re-entry. People with offices inside the cleared buildings were allowed to retrieve personal items and secure work areas, but police asked that they minimize their time inside while inspections continued in the complex. Click here for a list of reopened buildings.
Capitol Police indicated that Wednesday was expected to be a normal business day.
For those looking for transportation options from Capitol Hill, police told drivers they could retrieve cars parked on the streets or in outdoor lots in the Capitol complex. Parking garages in the complex were initially off limits, but inspectors were working their way through the structures and clearing them through the afternoon and evening. Click here for a list of reopened garages.
Union Station was closed and MARC, Amtrak and VRE services were suspended after the quake, but the building reopened and operations resumed after a few hours. All Metro stations were open as of 4 p.m. and trains were operating under a speed restriction of 15 mph, which was expected to remain in place for several hours, according to Metro. The restriction was expected to create significant delays for commuters. All Metrobus routes were also running, although traffic signal outages and road congestion were also creating delays.
The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer announced that all staff would be excused for the rest of the day, with the CAO opening Wednesday on its normal schedule.
About 100 “essential” employees of the Government Printing Office returned to their building after it was deemed safe Tuesday to produce the Congressional Record, Senate Calendar and Federal Register, according to spokesman Gary Somerset.
Washington National Cathedral in northwest Washington was damaged, with three pinnacles breaking off from the central tower, Reuters reported. A crack was discovered near the top of the Washington Monument after the earthquake, and a National Park Service spokesman told the Associated Press that the monument will be closed indefinitely while engineers study the damage.
Staffers who were working in the Capitol said the building felt like it was swaying, noting that the chandeliers were swinging from side to side.
"At first, it was like someone was shaking my chair," one staffer said. "Then it got harder, so I stood in a doorway until it passed."
As soon as the shaking was over, officers started evacuating the building as a safety precaution, sending an alert to House staff at 2:35 p.m. Senate staff started conducting business by cellphone on the corner of Delaware and Constitution avenues Northeast.
Sen. Chris Coons was in Washington to gavel in the Senate’s pro forma session when the earthquake hit. The Delaware Democrat, who was outdoors preparing for a television interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, sat on the ground when the shaking began to make sure “it wasn’t me,” he said.
The pro forma session was moved from the Senate chamber to the Postal Square Building next to Union Station on Massachusetts Avenue because of the earthquake. It was held “in a room that is prepared for off-site briefings in the event of an emergency,” said Coons, who gaveled in the session from a folding table in front of a Senate seal that had been pinned to a curtain. The session began about an hour late and lasted just 22 seconds.
The last time either chamber convened outside the Capitol was for a joint special meeting at Federal Hall in New York City on Sept. 6, 2002, to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That meeting, however, was not a formal session of Congress.
Tuesday was Coons’ first time presiding over a pro forma session, and he said “it was a little unusual” to conduct Senate business away from the Capitol. But he added that he was impressed with the way the matter was handled by the Senate floor staff.
“There was a complete, previously prepared kit that had the Senate seal, flags, gavel procedural material, and the whole Senate floor staff relocated to the Postal Square site to conduct the pro forma session,” Coons said. “It reinforces the confidence I already had.”
The pro forma sessions are being held to prevent President Barack Obama from installing recess appointments. The next session is set for 11:15 a.m. Friday.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger was working on a bill in the House Intelligence Committee room in the Capitol Visitor Center when he felt the shaking. Others in the room feared it was a bomb. “I knew it wasn’t a bomb because we were shaking left to right, left to right. A bomb would have gone outwards then inwards,” the Maryland Democrat said while standing outside near the Cannon House Office Building.
He was impatient for the Rayburn garage, where his car was parked, to reopen. “I wish we could get our cars so we could move out,” he said. “I want to go back to work.” Inspectors cleared the Russell, Hart and Dirksen garages on the Senate side before the garages on the House side.
One of Ruppersberger’s staff members said plaster and light fixtures fell from the walls of the lawmaker’s Rayburn office during the quake.
Obama — who was in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Tuesday for a family vacation — was briefed on the earthquake during a conference call, according to White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. His advisers reported no major infrastructure damage, including at airports and nuclear facilities, and no requests for assistance. Obama was also updated on preparations for Hurricane Irene, a Category 2 storm that the National Weather Service predicted would move over or near the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday evening. It is currently heading in the direction of the southeast United States.
The president didn’t feel the earthquake in Massachusetts, Earnest later said.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was much closer to the earthquake’s epicenter. He was traveling to a town hall meeting in Culpeper, Va., when the temblor struck. The gathering with more than 60 community leaders was eventually held outdoors beneath a tree.
“I am relieved to hear initial reports of limited damage and injuries from today’s quake,” Warner said in a statement. “We are reaching out to state and local officials to see what federal resources or assistance they might need. We also have been in touch with officials at Dominion Virginia Power and they assure us the North Anna Nuclear Power Station, near the quake’s epicenter in Louisa County, was taken offline safely.”
David Becker, a tourist from Long Island, N.Y., was in the CVC cafeteria when the earthquake started. He said it lasted about 10 seconds.
"There was just a lot of shaking, and then we had to go," he said.
Across the way at the Supreme Court, Ken Kortea of Bloomington, Ind., didn't feel any shaking. He just heard a loud bang.
"We weren't sure what was happening," he said. "We just knew we had to leave."
Bystanders reported that pieces of the ceiling were falling inside Union Station.
Lisa Styles, 26, of Hyattsville, who works at the Center Cafe at Union Station, reported seeing parts of a statue falling after she ran from the building.
Others reported seeing parts of the ceiling fall inside the food court.
"We felt and then saw stuff falling from the roof — a piece of concrete maybe," said Francis Nsolo, 35, of Hyattsville.
Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman confirmed there was damage to the building. "We do have pieces of plaster down. We do have pieces of statues down," he said.
Jessica Brady, Jessica Estepa, Niels Lesniewski, Daniel Newhauser, Humberto Sanchez and Neda Semnani contributed to this report.