MINERAL, Va. (AP) — A powerful, “once-in-a-century” earthquake rocked Virginia Tuesday, rattling highrises in Richmond and shutting down two nuclear power reactors within 10 miles of the epicenter, but sparing the state major injuries or damage.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and public safety officials said initial reports following the powerful 5.8-magnitude quake indicate its impacts were minimal.
“The very good news is the damage and any injuries have been very, very minor,” McDonnell said in a news conference.
Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said the Louisa fire chief reported one or possibly two people were transported to a hospital. He said there was “a sprinkling of others” that didn’t require transport to the hospital.
The Virginia Department of Transportation inspected roads and bridges but “there doesn’t appear to be any significant infrastructure damage,” McDonnell said Tuesday afternoon.
Virginia Dominion Power shut down its two-reactor nuclear power plant in Louisa County, but said there was no evidence of any damage to the decades-old North Anna Power Station.
“We have personnel walking through the power station to check for any type of damage,” spokesman Jim Norvelle said. The reactor units were shut down manually by the power station’s operators, following protocol, he said.
Dominion’s Surry nuclear power plant, located in southeast Virginia, was not taken off line although rumbles could be felt there, Norvelle said.
The quake rattled but did not stop primary election voting in a handful of Senate and House districts.
At a polling place a few miles from the epicenter, Mel Sandlin and two other election workers were in a lull between voters in Tuesday’s low-turnout legislative primaries when the funeral home that served as a polling place began to quiver.
“I can’t describe how loud the rumble was. It was as though a supersonic jet flew 3 feet overhead,” he said. “We thought the building was coming down on us.”
Christopher Bailey, a structural geologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, said the Mineral quake was an historic geologic event.
“This is a once-in-a-century earthquake, anyway you slice it” Bailey said, adding that quakes of a similar magnitude were based on estimates and before monitoring equipment was available.
The quake was centered in a region known as the central Virginia earthquake zone, which is seismically active but not on this scale.
Bailey said he was on the campus of William and Mary in a meeting with fellow geologists.
“We all looked at each other and we said, that’s a lot of shaking. This is an earthquake,” he said.
In central Virginia near the quake’s epicenter, pictures were toppled off walls and residents were shaken.
“It felt like a wave. I thought the walls were coming down and I’m not exaggerating,” said Ann Battiste, who was sitting in a chair in her Louisa County home when the quake struck. She couldn’t get up because her chocolate Labrador retriever Debbie and a tiny dog named Peanut were pinned against her terrified and both trying to get into her lap.
Battiste said pictures were shaken off the wall and several vases fell. A huge sheet of shattered glass that protected a painting that hung over the fireplace in the family room was still on the hearth.
“It was like the house was coming apart,” Battiste said, who first thought it was an explosion in the basement or that a truck had hit house. “All these things flash through your mind in a matter of seconds.”
Mineral, a tiny community within miles of the epicenter, is a major rail line and freight trains rumble through regularly. For an instant, some wondered whether one had derailed in their midst.
There were numerous reports of minor injuries — mostly cuts and bruises — and a smattering of emergency calls from terrified people complaining of chest pains, said Miranda Kellison of the Mineral Rescue Squad.
“We’re still trying to assess out in Mineral, trying to get a handle on what’s going on in there,” Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker said. “So far we are, knock on wood, doing real well.”
Richard Harris, owner of Harris Automotive south of Mineral, said he was in his office when the rumbling began and it was hard to gain his footing.
“Everything fell off the walls; the TV was hanging by the cord,” he said. “I knew what it was, but I’d never felt one so strong.”
Shirley Goode, also of Mineral, said she was “in bed looking at the soaps and I heard all this rumbling and shaking. I heard things falling and breaking, and I finally got up and looked and there was glass all over the place. It was some kind of scary.”
In Richmond, workers fled office buildings that swayed and shook as the earth rumbled.
About 250 residents of high-rise for the elderly in downtown Richmond were evacuated after reports of buckling bricks and a damaged stairwell.
While at lunch in downtown Richmond, Niky Davis, 37, initially thought the shaking was construction work.
“My second thought is, ‘Oh my God, it’s a gas line.’ Because it felt so close to underneath where we were sitting,” Davis said. “I was like, ‘It’s a gas line. It’s going to blow.’”
Nicole Bromfield, a professor at United Arab Emirates University in Dubai, was visiting Richmond, her hometown, when the quake occurred.
“At first I thought there was a train somewhere nearby,” Bromfield said. But after the tremors didn’t stop, “then I realized it was not a train.”
Bromfield, who is pregnant, said she felt some movement from within, as well.
“He’s definitely excited right now,” she said.
As of 6 p.m., the United States Geological Service said it had received more than 11,000 responses on its “Did You Feel It?” website from about 3,400 zip codes along the East Coast.
Associated Press reporters Michael Felberbaum, Larry O’Dell, Dena Potter and Steve Szkotak contributed to this report from Richmond. Hank Kurz contributed from Mineral.