Government buildings in the city, including City Hall, were evacuated. The 26-story federal courthouse in lower Manhattan began swaying and hundreds of people were seen leaving the building. Court officers weren't letting people back in.
Valerie Grif, 19, was tearful as she stood in a full-length wedding gown on the sidewalk outside the city's marriage bureau. She had been waiting inside for her fiance to arrive when officers started ordering, "Exit the building right now!" she said. She hadn't felt the building shake and was confused.
"I didn't feel anything. I couldn't feel it," she said. Now, "I don't know what's happening, if I'm getting married today."
On the eighth floor of the same building, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance was starting a press conference on the high-profile case involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn when the floor began shaking back and forth. Reporters in the room at first thought colleagues behind them were pushing their chairs. But within a few seconds, the sense that something larger was happening took hold. "Get him out of here!" the DA's security team said and ushered the DA and the others out of the room.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake was half a mile deep. It was centered near Louisa, Va., which is northwest of Richmond and south of Washington. Tremors were felt as far north as Rhode Island and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where President Barack Obama is vacationing.
Thousands of people came rushing out of buildings on Manhattan's West Side.
Terry Chamberlain, an account executive with Hudson Yards, said he was sitting at his computer.
"I felt I was having vertigo, that it was me," he said. "Then the monitor moved. I got up and I could hear things moving in the ceiling."
Standing nearby was Rajesh Pahurkar. "At first, I thought I was dizzy, then I looked around and everyone looked surprised," he said.
He said he ran out of the building because "during 9/11, I was there, so I didn't want to take chances."