Quake shake: 5.0 tremor rattles residents across Ontario and Quebec

TORONTO - Cars were shaken from their parking spots, buildings cracked and residents ran through the streets Wednesday as a magnitude 5.0 earthquake left a small town in western Quebec in a state of emergency and much of central Canada wondering what in the world was going on.

TORONTO - Cars were shaken from their parking spots, buildings cracked and residents ran through the streets Wednesday as a magnitude 5.0 earthquake left a small town in western Quebec in a state of emergency and much of central Canada wondering what in the world was going on.

The damage appeared to be concentrated in Gracefield, Que., a tiny municipality of just over 2,300 not far from the epicentre of the temblor, which was located about 60 kilometres north of Ottawa and about 18 kilometres beneath the surface of the earth.

When the quake struck at 1:41 p.m. ET, Gracefield's residents ran through the streets as the buildings around them creaked and cracked, said town councillor Michael Gainsford.

At least seven buildings were damaged, Gainsford said, including the town church, a community centre, and the town's pharmacy, grocery store, and civic administration offices.

"The ladies were crying, they were panicking, they didn't know what to do," he said. "The vehicles (on the street) were actually shaken out of position."

There were no reports of injuries, he added. A local state of emergency was declared shortly after the quake, which Gainsford said lasted about a minute.

"In that minute, everyone ran for the street and everyone was terrified," he said. "It's something that I've never experienced before as a fireman for 25 years."

Elsewhere, damage appeared minor — a broken gas main on Parliament Hill, "minor structural damage" in Ottawa, sewer and water main breakages in the Ontario city of North Bay, a four-hour drive north of Toronto. But the buzz from people unaccustomed to such tremors stretched across a huge swath of central Canada and the northeastern United States.

The Geological Survey of Canada described the event — a rare phenomenon so far east of the Rocky Mountains — as a "moderate" 5.0 quake. Residents across New York, Vermont, Michigan and Illinois also reported feeling the ground shake.

"You'd expect to see some minor damage only in the epicentral region," said Sylvia Hayek, a seismic analyst with the GSC.

"You wouldn't expect to see anything really major, but how you feel it, how it affects things, depends on soil conditions and on the structure."

Within minutes of the quake, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the Internet's usual hotspots were humming with reports from people in central Canada's largest cities, saying they felt the rumble in places like Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

Reports varied about how long the quake lasted; witnesses in the national capital region said the tremors shook downtown buildings, homes in surbuban Ottawa and government offices across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Que., for about 30 seconds, while in Toronto some said it was only five or 10 seconds.

Janet Drysdale of Earthquakes Canada, a branch of the federal Department of Natural Resources, said the tremor likely didn't last much longer than a few seconds, but confirmed that it did indeed trigger some aftershocks.

"There have been some aftershocks following this event; in the hour or two following it, there were approximately four or five" aftershocks of a magnitude greater than 2.5, Drysdale said.

"We would expect some aftershocks, but they would diminish as time goes on."

Nova Scotia Liberal MP Roger Cuzner, who was in his Parliament Hill office when the quake struck, was cleaning up some constituency business when "the coffee in my cup started slopping around."

"You could feel the impact," Cuzner marvelled.

In Parliament's halls of power, quizzical staffers poked their heads out of offices and stared around dumbfounded in the moments before Commons security ordered everyone out in what Cuzner described as a brisk and orderly evacuation.

Everyone filed down the stairs and out into the driveway, and after a few moments guards shepherded startled staffers and tongue-tied tourists back from the building to the front lawn, which was strewn with staging for next week's Canada Day festivities.

It was a frightening experience for anyone in the political district, where some were fearful about the structural integrity of the area's old historic buildings.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on his way to the airport and did not feel the earthquake, a spokesman said. Outside his office, a picture fell to the ground.

Mike Charlebois, who works in the parliamentary dining room, was on the sixth floor of the centrepiece building known as Parliament's Centre Block when the shaking started.

"We were scared because we thought the building was going to fall apart," Charlebois said.

"First thing we did was evacuate the building because we had no idea what was going on. The Parliament is very delicate; it could have been a bomb threat or anything so we had no idea what it could have been."

"It was pretty scary because you have no idea what can happen, what it was that made that kind of shakiness. We hear so much about terrorists, stuff like that, it's (in the back of) our mind."

Witnesses in downtown Toronto also described a prolonged tremor that shook desks, rattled bookshelves and caused paintings on walls to shake.

Holly Rockbrune, 25, who works for an insurance company, was home for lunch when she began to notice something strange was happening.

"It was odd because I was in the kitchen making lunch and I could hear banging," Rockbrune said.

"I went into the living room and everything was rattling, but I didn't think much of it so I went back into the kitchen. It only lasted a few seconds."

A four-hour drive north, in the city of North Bay, Ont., Mayor Vic Fedeli was standing outside his office when he suddenly felt his legs wobble.

"I came back into my office and all my paintings are askew," Fedeli said. "You really didn’t hear anything, but the entire seven-storey building shook."

The city's switchboard "lit up like a Christmas tree, with some people reporting sewer and water breakages," he added.

Stephen Taylor, a political pundit in Ottawa, used his Twitter feed to describe what the tremors felt like.

"I was in an elevator when the earthquake hit," Taylor wrote. "Debris hitting the top of it, walls scraping ... fun stuff."

It was one of the most significant quakes ever measured in the region, according to the organization.

The two largest quakes in western Quebec occurred in 1935 at magnitude 6.1 and in 1732 at a magnitude of 6.2, according to the agency.

It said earthquakes east of the Rocky Mountains, although less frequent than in the west, are typically felt over a much broader region.

The survey also said that east of the Rockies, an earthquake can be felt over an area as much as ten times larger than a similar magnitude earthquake on the west coast.

Hundreds of people were milling about on downtown Ottawa streets as the Parliament buildings emptied, although the Prime Minister's Office across the street at the Langevin Block was among the few that was not evacuated.

Conservative Senator Lowell Murray said the massive chandeliers of the Senate's upper chamber began swaying during member statements.

"Initially we thought it might have been an airplane crashing into the building," Murray said.

"But we were standing around wondering what was going on. And I quickly realized it was an earthquake. And then everybody started shouting out, out, out."

Samantha Lehman, 14, was in a downtown shopping mall when the tremors began, and the fear among the people there was palpable.

"They told us not to run but people were running out," Lehman said. She said she was "still kind of shaky, but I think we'll be ok."

The quake was greeted with excitement at the office of Laurent Godin, a geology professor at Queen's University, where he and his colleagues all gathered to exchange accounts of an event they study constantly but rarely get to witness in person.

The epicentre of the quake is located on an active fault known as the West Quebec Seismic Zone, a region Godin describes as one of the more quake-prone regions in the country.

While the activity in the area is not likely to equal quakes registered along more volatile fault zones in British Columbia, Godin said more minor temblors occur often.

"If you look at a map of historical seismicity in the area it’s riddled with little red dots, but the magnitudes of those earthquakes are so low that people haven’t felt them," he said.

"Because it happened in rocks that we call the Canadian Shield ... these rocks tend to transmit seismic waves very efficiently. So it's understandable and normal that it can propagate quite a ways."

— With files from Bruce Cheadle, Joan Bryden and Murray Brewster in Ottawa; Alexander Panetta and Sidhartha Bannerjee in Montreal; Michelle McQuigge, Pat Hewitt, Heather Scoffield and Brian Pardoe in Toronto; and The Associated Press.

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