When the earthquake started to shake Anchorage early Sunday morning, some hurried into downtown hotel lobbies dressed in their robes and underwear, while others sitting at bars simply held tighter to their drinks.

Facebook and Twitter quickly lit up in the early morning hours across Alaska with posts about power outages, racing hearts and barking dogs. Some people wrote about bolting out of bed or even out of their homes. Later, people wrote about the insomnia that follows after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hits at 1:30 a.m.

By Sunday afternoon -- whether terrified or calm in the face of the earthquake -- people had stories to tell about what they felt and what they saw when the ground started to sway. Others were cleaning up messes.

Swaying atop the Hotel Captain Cook

For Matt and Julie Stotts of Wasilla, the earthquake set their room swaying on the 14th floor of the Hotel Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage. It would glide a few feet in one direction, then halt and glide the other way -- over and over again.

"It felt like a mechanical bull," Matt, 46, said. He and his wife both got out of bed, but didn't leave their room, figuring it would take too long to get downstairs.

Julie held onto the door frame. Matt looked out the window. The curtains swayed and he could hear car alarms sounding on the streets below. He looked out the door's peephole. He heard a frantic yell from a man who didn't know what to do. A woman pushed him toward the stairs.

Downstairs, Larry Cobb of Aniak sat at the Whale's Tail, a bar and restaurant on the first floor of the hotel. He said the room started to sway and he strengthened his hold on his glass and waited. So did the others around him. Nothing broke, he said.

"It was smooth, but it was big," said Cobb, the 50-year-old director of curriculum at the Kuspuk School District. He was in Anchorage, along with scores of other educators, for a weekend conference. "Everyone was amazed at how strong it felt," he said.

Cobb said he went out into the lobby once the shaking stopped and found it packed with people -- some dressed in robes and some in underwear. The hotel's elevators had stopped working and big metal gates had dropped on the staircases, around floor 15, he said.

People could get down to the lobby using the emergency stairs, but they couldn't return to their rooms for an hour or so until staff unlocked the stairwells, Cobb said.

Hubert Rycraw, a manager at the Captain Cook, said he didn't work overnight, but heard that some guests chose to check out early Sunday. He said he hadn't heard of any damage to the 547-room hotel.

Recent resident feels first earthquake

Daniel Lee, 40, moved to Anchorage from Chicago about six months ago. On Sunday afternoon, he and his girlfriend sat at Darwin's Theory bar watching a football game.

About 12 hours earlier, Lee sat at their home near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. "I'm watching TV, just relaxing," he said. And then, the house started to shake. At first he thought that it was just a plane. Then, he thought maybe a plane had crashed?

But the house kept swaying. It went back and forth and then it almost felt like it started to swirl, Lee said. He ran upstairs. His girlfriend, Cheryl McKay, had woken up. She's lived in Alaska for 25 years and said she knew the rolling meant earthquake.

"First I needed a hug, then it was the doorway," Lee said.

They waited it out and then McKay started to send and receive text messages from her friends. She called her sisters, everyone asking if everyone else was OK. Everyone was.

Quake rattles party-goers

Mike Hines was at an after-party in a suite on the 13th floor of the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel when the earthquake hit. Hines is from Orange County, California, and is well acquainted with shakers and rollers, he said.

"It was more of a movie experience than a normal earthquake in California, only because I was 13 floors up in the air," Hines said. He called it "an excessive swing." People had trouble keeping their feet under them. Some fell down. Some banged into things. Some cried.

"You really had to hold onto something," he said.

About 40 people were at the early morning party, an extension of the Scottish celebration known as the Burns supper that had drawn about 400 people to the downtown hotel.

"There was a private dinner and quite a lot of Scotch for quite a lot of people," Hines said.

The hotel didn't evacuate guests when the earthquake started but his group joined masses of people walking down the stairwell and out of the hotel. Some people were screaming, he said.

They went outside, but quickly decided it was too cold. Back in the lobby, some people were in pajamas and robes. A couple of men were wrapped only in comforters.

The power was out and people used their cellphones as flashlights.

"That was the Southern California Burns Dinner Earthquake Experience," Hines said.

Later Sunday, Hines said he noticed the toilets in the Sheraton's public second-floor restroom had sloshed over.

This big quake could be looked at as a test, he said. People learned what falls off the shelves. Businesses learned if their systems needed improvement.

"When nobody is killed or seriously hurt, it's probably a good thing," Hines said. "The plates get a chance to settle in, maybe put off the next one for a while.

An impromptu engineering lesson

Down the road from the Sheraton, at the Hilton Anchorage, a large group of civil engineers were in town for a conference.

In the lobby Sunday afternoon, Alex Tanner, 22, sat with two classmates from the University of California, Santa Barbara. The three of them were asleep in a hotel room on the 11th floor when the building started to shake.

"For the first 15 seconds, I thought I was still dreaming," said Tanner, who has felt earthquakes before, but never like the one in Anchorage.

The three students said that they've watched videos in classes of buildings collapsing and walls cracking as earthquakes rattled the ground.

They knew what the worst-case scenario could look like, but "the building reacted just how it should," Tanner said.

He described the hotel swaying back and forth, just as the guests at the Hotel Captain Cook had.

As they made their way to the lobby, they watched one woman hustle down the staircase with all of her suitcases. Other hotel guests milled around outside.

Tanner said they saw some cracks in the building's drywall, but watching it survive the shaking was a good reminder of the important work civil engineers do.

"It was gratifying," he said.

"I can't wait to go back and tell my professor about this," said 21-year-old Spencer Collins.

Glass breaks, shelves fall

Some Anchorage residents started their Sunday at work, cleaning up the messes left by the earthquake.

The Anchorage School District posted a photograph on Twitter of ceiling tiles that crashed to the floor at Romig Middle School.

John Weddleton, owner of Bosco's comic store in Spenard, said swords at the shop had fallen and cracked. Games toppled down from shelves and comics folded over, going from near mint-condition to good condition.

"We had hundred of things scattered all over the floor," he said. The store was offering a tongue-in-cheek 7.1 percent discount on earthquake-damaged goods.

At Trapper Jack's Trading Post, in downtown Anchorage, the earthquake's rumbling knocked over a floor display crammed with Alaska-themed keychains and cards. But things could have been worse for the store crammed with fragile merchandise, said employee Macy Cruz, 18.

"It's mainly just reorganizing," she said.

By Sunday afternoon, it appeared that the earthquake only destroyed one plastic magnet and a wooden sculpture, as well as several glass cabinet doors that lay shattered in a storage area.

At Anchorage True Value Hardware on Jewel Lake Road, surveillance footage from early Sunday showed the slow swaying of signs and shelves quickly gain intensity, throwing drawers of nuts and bolts to the floor, along with other merchandise throughout the store.

"It's a widespread mess," said Adam Craig, the store's owner and manager. "I imagine it will probably take about a month to get it all sorted out."

Alaska Dispatch News photographer Bill Roth contributed to this story.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the university that the three civil engineering students attend.