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 on Gracefield, Que., a tiny municipality of just over 2,300 not far from the epicentre of the temblor, which was pinpointed about 60 kilometres north of Ottawa and about 18 kilometres under the surface of the earth.
When it struck at 1:41 p.m. ET, Gracefield's residents ran through the streets as the buildings around them creaked and cracked, said town Coun. 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.
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.