Thousands of panicked workers swarmed into the streets up and down the east coast following the quake [Reuters]

An earthquake has hit United States' east coast, and was felt as far away as Canada, shaking buildings, delaying flights, and sending thousands of frightened workers into the streets.

There have been no reports of any major damage or injuries from the earthquake, which measured 5.9 on the Richter scale. The US Geological Survey said the epi-centre of the quake was in Mineral, Virginia, at a very shallow depth of 1km.

Government institutions, such as the Pentagon and the US Capitol, were briefly evacuated in Washignton, and thousands of panicked office workers swarmed into the streets up and down the east coast as the lunchtime tremble sent items crashing to the floor from store and office shelves.

"We were rocking," said Larry Beach, who works at the US Agency for International Development in downtown Washington, 133km from the epicentre. "It was definitely significant."

Earthquakes of magnitude 5.5 to 6 can cause damage to buildings and other structures, especially if shallow. The shallower the quake is, the more intense it is felt on the surface, and the potential damage is greater.

Two nuclear reactors at a power plant in Virginia went off-line, while traffic lights were knocked out throughout Washington.

Three pinnacles in the central tower of the Washington National Cathedral, the highest building in the city, broke off in the quake, a spokesman said.

Phone service was disrupted throughout the region as network congestion prevented cell phone users from making calls. A Verizon Wireless spokesman said there were no reports of damage to its network but congestion disrupted service for about 20 minutes after the quake.

Flight disruptions

In New York, the quake prompted evacuations of courthouses, City Hall and halted work at the World Trade
Center construction site.

Control towers at the John F Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey were also evacuated, and flights were grounded briefly in Washington, Philadelphia and New York while authorities inspected control towers and runways.

Fire department and police officials in Dutchess County, north of New York City, reported structural damage to some buildings.

"We're getting a lot of calls on buildings shaking but there's no report of any structural damage at this time. Just panicked people calling about buildings shaking," a spokesman for the New York City Fire Department said. 

Buildings in Boston were evacuated, while the quake was felt as far away as Toronto.

Some people who experienced the swaying at their offices in Boston said they felt their stomachs turn.
"I thought I was dizzy and I needed to drink more water," said Heather Kennaway, a manager at Sportello, a local restaurant, who was unaware of the earthquake.

The earthquake was felt in Martha's Vineyard, where President Barack Obama was playing golf on his summer vacation at the time. It was unclear if Obama felt the quake.

The quake was the largest in Virginia since 1897.

Source: Agencies