quakeEmployees of Smith Barney mill outside their Broad Street office as emergency personnel compare notes on alarm report. (Click to enlarge)

A rare earthquake, reported to have been centered on Virginia, swept the Red Bank area early Tuesday afternoon, rattling doors and nerves, but apparently causing no damage.

Red Bank fire marshal Stanley Sickels reported fire and police responded to a number of fire alarms tripped either by panicked building occupants or set off by the tremors, but found no damage or injuries.

What was initially described as a partial ceiling collapse at the Sears store on Route 35 in Middletown proved to be just a few tiles from a drop ceiling coming down, a township police spokesman said.

Phone lines were said to be jammed as shoppers, restaurant patrons and office workers swept out into Broad Street by the dozens to compare notes as it became clear that an earthquake was happening.

The event brought on an atmosphere of awe and levity.

“Everybody in our office felt it,” said Dorothy Hinchcliff, who works in financial publishing in Shrewsbury. “They all walked out.”

Father Maricin Kania, of St. Leo the Great Parish in Lincroft, was down by the Navesink River when the placid waters suddenly turned choppy.

“All of a sudden, the boats started hitting against the docks,” he said.

“People were really freaked out by it,” said Lisa Pereira of Jackson, who said she felt the earth moving beneath her as she walked down Broad Street.

“It was sort of like a circular motion,” said Smith Barney employee Tony Privetera, of Manalapan. “We all thought it was a good idea to go out and get some coffee.”

“It really felt like someone was shaking my chair,” said Grace Maggiulli, a Middletown resident who was having lunch at Surf Taco when the temblor hit, at around 1:55 p.m. “I’d never experienced anything like it.”

“The whole floor of the place was just kind of rocking,” said Susan Burke, a visiting Arizona resident who was eating at the Broadway Grille, at Broad and Monmouth streets.