A ferocious tsunami unleashed by Japan's biggest recorded earthquake slammed into its eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control.
Hours later, the waves washed ashore on Hawaii and the U.S. West coast, where evacuations were ordered from California to Washington and the Coast Guard was searching for one man who was swept away while taking photographs of the waves. The entire Pacific had been put on alert — including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska — but waves were not as bad as expected.
In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed and pressure began building inside.
Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the city in Miyagi prefecture, or state, closest to the epicentre. But authorities said they weren't able to reach the area because of damage to the roads.
Authorities said hundreds of people were killed across Japan and the toll was expected to surpass 1,000.
A police official, who declined to be named because of department policy, said it may be a while before rescuers could reach the area to get more precise body count. So far, they have confirmed 178 were killed, with 584 missing. Police also said 947 people were injured.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 7-meter tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0. In the early hours of Saturday, a magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck the central, mountainous part of the country — far from the original quake's epicentre. It was not immediately clear if this latest quake was related to the others.
Scientists say the massive earthquake ranks as the fifth largest jolt in the world since 1900, shaking after the initial shock lasted for about five minutes. It was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.
"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, U.S. Geological Survey Scientist Brian Atwater told The Associated Press.
The so-called "megathrust" quake is similar to what happened during the 2004 Sumatra quake and the one last year in Chile. In all these cases, one tectonic plate is shoved beneath another. Such earthquakes are responsible for the most powerful shifts in the Earth's crust.
It shook dozens of cities and villages along a 2,100-kilometre stretch of coast, including Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres from the epicenter. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.
Koto Fujikawa, 28, was riding a monorail when the quake hit and had to later pick her way along narrow, elevated tracks to the nearest station.
"I thought I was going to die," Fujikawa, who works for a marketing company, said. "It felt like the whole structure was collapsing."
Japan declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, where pressure has risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal. To reduce the pressure, slightly radioactive vapour may be released.
The agency said the radioactive element in the vapour would not affect the environment or human health.
Japan's nuclear safety agency issued an evacuation order to more than 2,800 people near the plant. The reactor core remains hot and requires cooling after a shutdown. Several nuclear plants elsewhere along the coast were also partially shut down, with no reports of leakage.
In the United States, the Coast Guard is searching for a man swept out to sea in northern California while taking pictures of tsunami waves.
Nearby, authorities in Brookings, Ore., say four people have survived after a tsunami surge swept them off a beach in Curry County and into the sea. The Curry County sheriff's department says two were able to get out of the water on their own, and two were rescued by law enforcement and fire officials.
Even for Japan, a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several kilometres inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
Large fishing boats and other vessels rode high waves ashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged cars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.
A Japanese coast guard official says a search is under way for a ship carrying 80 dock workers that was swept away. The vessel was washed away from a shipbuilding site in Miyagi prefecture, the most affected area.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the homes, probably because of burst gas pipes.
Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near Sendai, carrying buildings, some of them ablaze. Drivers attempted to flee. Sendai airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris that included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
Highways to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. Telephone lines snapped. Train service in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."
He said the Defence Ministry was sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
More than 45 countries were awaiting a request from Tokyo after offering to help, the United Nations said on Friday.
Some 68 search and rescue teams from 45 countries were on standby, but the United Nations was awaiting a green light from authorities in Japan to deploy, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to offer to help "in any way possible", the Japanese Jiji agency reported.
The Defense Department was preparing American forces in the Pacific Ocean to provide relief after the quake.
The Russian emergency services agency ERMACOM offered 40 people with three sniffer dogs, while Singapore had civil defence forces on standby and Poland offered firefighters.
China, Switzerland and the United States also offered rescue teams, while Britain, France and others said they were ready to offer whatever help was required.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control with 30-metre-high flames whipping into the sky.
Also from Miyagi prefecture, NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities said they expect a metre high tsunami.
Waves from the tsunami hit Hawaii close to 8 a.m. ET, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center says Kauai was the first island hit early Friday by the tsunami, which was quickly sweeping through the Hawaiian Island chain. Officials predicted Hawaii would experience waves up to 6 feet.
Residents in coastal areas of Hawaii were evacuated to refuge areas at community centers and schools while tourists in Waikiki were moved to higher floors of their high-rise hotels.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gives estimated arrival times for the tsunami along the North American Pacific Coast, the first contact with the north tip of Vancouver Island is expected at 6:26 PST.
The quake struck at a depth of 10 kilometres, about 125 kilometres off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 380 kilometres northeast of Tokyo.
The quake brought super-modern Tokyo to a standstill Friday, paralyzing trains that normally run like clockwork and stranding hordes of commuters carrying mobile phones rendered largely useless by widespread outages.
In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 333-metre steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms. NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
Tokyo prides itself on being an orderly, technologically savvy, even futuristic city. Residents have long daily commutes and usually can rely on a huge, criss-crossing network of train and subway lines. Tens of thousands of people milled at train stations and were preparing to spend the night at 24-hour cafes and hotels.
The Tokyo suburb of Yokohama offered the community's main concert hall as an emergency place to stay overnight, and planned to offer blankets and other amenities, Yokohama Arena official Hideharu Terada said.
"There has never been a big earthquake like this, when all the railways stopped and so this is a first for us," Terada said. "People are trickling in. They are all calm."
Large numbers of people waited at Tokyo's Shinjuku station, the world's busiest train station, for service to resume so they could go home. TV announcers urged workers not to leave their offices to prevent injuries in case of more strong aftershocks.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in Tokyo at his office in a trading company when the quake hit.
It sent bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor, and cracks appeared in the walls.
"I've been through many earthquakes, but I've never felt anything like this," he said. "I don't know if we'll be able to get home tonight."
Canadians living in Japan anxiously called home Friday morning, describing the terrifying pitch and sway of buildings in Tokyo and the gridlock as the country reeled in the wake of the quake.
Sam Rose, originally from British Columbia, has been teaching in Tokyo for more than a decade and has felt the earth tremble before.
But this time, he found himself clinging to a doorway at work, wondering if his wife and two children were safe.
"It's a brand new building and it was shaking like a mad dog," he said in a telephone interview.
Footage on NHK from their Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks. It also showed a glass shelter at a bus stop in Tokyo completely smashed by the quake and a weeping woman nearby being comforted by another woman.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday.
Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the carnage.
"We don't even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things," he said.
Tokyo's main airport was closed. A large section of the ceiling at the 1-year-old airport at Ibaraki, about 80 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, fell to the floor with a powerful crash.
Dozens of fires were reported in northern prefectures of Fukushima, Sendai, Iwate and Ibaraki. Collapsed homes and landslides were also reported in Miyagi.
Japan's worst previous quake was in 1923 in Kanto, an 8.3-magnitude temblor that killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe city in 1996 killed 6,400 people.
Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire" – an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 per cent of the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. A magnitude-8.8 temblor that shook central Chile last February also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.
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