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Quake damages Washington's National Cathedral

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three spires on the Washington National Cathedral, site of state funerals for several U.S. presidents, broke and fell and the U.S. Capitol suffered some minor damage in Tuesday's earthquake.

Richard Weinberg, director of communications at the Episcopal cathedral, said the 30-story central tower had suffered "significant" damage with three of the fleurs-de-lis shaped corner spires breaking off and falling to the ground.

"A fourth is leaning," said Weinberg. "There was other minor structural damage to buttresses and smaller pinnacles."

No one was injured but the cathedral -- host to state funerals, and memorial services for many U.S. presidents and the site of several presidential inaugural prayer services -- was closed to the public so the building could be inspected.

The National Cathedral, which weighs 150,000 tons and took 83 years to complete, is the highest point in Washington. It is a solid masonry structure made of limestone blocks placed one atop another.

The flying buttresses are also solid stone and they help hold up the walls. The roof is held up by a steel beam structure but does not help to hold up the rest of the cathedral.

In the U.S. Capitol, which was evacuated shortly after the earthquake hit on Tuesday afternoon, some minor damage could be seen in the rotunda, under the iconic dome. Bits of paint and plaster, from high on the walls, were scattered on the floor.

Some chunks of plaster fell from over a doorway in Statuary Hall. A crack could also be seen in the archway leading out of the hall.

But staff members were allowed to re-enter the Capitol to retrieve personal items after it was inspected by structural engineers. Inspections were continuing to determine the condition of the buildings in the Capitol complex.

Several chunks fell out of the roof of Union Station, said Virginia Newton, a tour bus employee who works at the 104-year-old train station.

A Reuters reporter saw three sections of the station's ornate vaulted ceiling that appeared to have fallen down.

The Washington Monument was closed indefinitely after cracks were found in the stones at the top of the 555-foot (169-meter) obelisk, the National Park Service said late on Tuesday.

The Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Old Post Office Tower were temporarily closed after the earthquake but all reopened after a short period of time.

(Reporting by Deborah Charles, Tabassum Zakaria, Andy Sullivan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman)