The U.S. Geological Survey said the 1:51 p.m. quake was about a 3.7 miles below ground and was centered near Mineral, Va., a rural area about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. It was felt as far north as New York City and as far west as Ohio.
"This is the biggest earthquake Virginia has ever felt since Columbus' time," said Ken Taylor, North Carolina's state geologist.
Parts of the Pentagon, White House and Capitol and the monuments on National Mall were evacuated in Washington, D.C. The quake also panicked the New York Stock Exchange, where the Dow Jones average briefly dropped before rallying to post its biggest gain in two weeks.
North Carolina Division of Emergency Management officials said there were no immediate reports of damage. Local officials asked residents not to call 911 to report the earthquake unless there was a related emergency to report.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said she called Virginia officials to offer assistance, but was told that none was needed.
People across the Triangle and as far south as Myrtle Beach, S.C., reported feeling the ground shake.
"We were working on the microscopes, and then all of a sudden, the things on the microscopes started shaking and the windows were shaking and then the teacher freaked out and left the room," North Carolina State University student Katlyn Crandall said. "He came back, like, five minutes later, and he was, like, 'We should leave.'"
N.C. State didn't conduct a campus-wide evacuation because the tremors ended so quickly, but officials did send an alert to students soon after to explain what happened.
The lunch rush had just finished at the White Swan BBQ restaurant in Benson when the waitresses said they noticed the tables moving.
"Everything was moving in here. We didn't know what to do. We just sat there," Jessie Nelson said.
Cathy McKeon said she initially thought crews were working in her Fayetteville office building when she felt it swaying.
"I literally saw the walls moving back and forth, and I thought for a split-second, 'Could it be an earthquake?' and I figured not," McKeon said. "I was totally surprised."
Savanna Bryant said she thought a freight train was passing by her Clayton home, but she couldn't see any train.
"I felt it but didn't hear it," Bryant said. "It's kind of scary when your stuff is falling off the walls."
Nicole Dernberger of Fuquay-Varina, who used to live in California, said she instantly recognized the tremors as an earthquake.
"Immediately, I jumped up and grabbed the baby and went into a doorway," Dernberger said, adding that her dog and horse began acting unusual long before she felt the quake. "Even though it was a small shake, you just don't know, and you need to be safe."
Amtrak officials said there were no delays in train service because of the earthquake. Takeoffs and landings were stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport, which likely will delay some flights into and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport, spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said.
Geology helped spread tremors
The quake is the largest in Virginia since May 5, 1897, according to the USGS.
"This would have been something that's been accumulating for maybe thousands of years and just happened to break today," Taylor said.
Taylor said a 5.8-magnitude quake is the minimum strength to cause structural damage to buildings and bridges, but that would occur only near the epicenter.
The East Coast gets earthquakes, but usually smaller ones and is less prepared than California or Alaska for shaking.
"It's really unusual for the East Coast to have an event of this magnitude," said Lara Wagner, a seismologist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The "old and cold" rocks along the East Coast transmit energy from earthquakes more efficiently than the underground rocks on the West Coast, Taylor said, which is why the quake was felt so widely.
The National Weather Service's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center said the location of the quake was far enough inland that it didn't threaten to trigger a tsunami on the coast.
Buildings were cleared throughout Richmond and other cities in Virginia, but within minutes, Richmond police began receiving calls about possible property damage.
About 250 residents were taken from an 11-story building for the elderly in downtown Richmond after reports of buckling bricks and a damaged stairwell. No injuries were reported, and officials said the residents would be allowed to return later Tuesday.
Dominion Power took two nuclear reactors near the site of the quake offline. The North Anna plant generates enough electricity to power 450,000 homes.
"We did lose on-site power, but all the diesel generators are up and running," Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher said 30 minutes after the quake. "Everything appears to be operating just fine."
Progress Energy spokeswoman Julia Milstead said there were no problems at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant southwest of Raleigh. The seismic monitors at the plant didn't even register, she said.
D.C. damage prompts evacuations
A District of Columbia fire department spokesman said numerous minor injuries were reported and a number of buildings were damaged, including the Ecuadorian embassy and a handful of schools. Thousands of people were milling about in downtown Washington after evacuating their buildings.
At Reagan National Airport outside Washington, ceiling tiles fell during a few seconds of shaking. Authorities announced it was an earthquake and all flights were put on hold.
At the Pentagon in northern Virginia, a low rumbling built and built to the point that the building was shaking. People ran into the corridors of the government's biggest building and as the shaking continued there were shouts of "Evacuate! Evacuate!"
President Barack Obama, who is vacationing in Massachusetts, held a conference call with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other officials Tuesday afternoon to assess critical infrastructure. No major damage was reported.
In New York, 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.
In Charleston, W.Va., hundreds of workers left the state Capitol building and employees at other downtown office buildings were asked to leave temporarily.
"The whole building shook," said Jennifer Bundy, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. "You could feel two different shakes. Everybody just kind of came out on their own."
In Ohio, where office buildings swayed in Columbus and Cincinnati and the press box at the Cleveland Indians' Progressive Field shook. At least one building near the Statehouse was evacuated in downtown Columbus.
In downtown Baltimore, the quake sent office workers into the streets, where lamp posts swayed slightly as they called family and friends to check in.
Wagner of UNC said she and other seismologists will study any aftershocks to get a better idea of the fault lines that caused the quake and to get a better picture of similar East Coast quakes.
"Because they happen infrequently (on the East Coast), we don't have a lot of data to study," she said.
A 2.8-magnitude aftershock was reported at 2:46 p.m.
"We have a really limited understanding of the forces behind earthquakes on the East Coast," she said. "The more that we can find out about what is causing these earthquakes ... the better we can prepare for it with appropriate engineering."