Hundreds Dead Quake Tsunami Slam Japan
A magnitude 8.9 earthquake — the biggest in modern Japanese history — slammed the island nation’s eastern coast Friday afternoon, unleashing a 23-foot tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland and prompting a “nuclear emergency.”
Hours later, the tsunami reached Hawaii, with initial reports citing little damage. Warnings blanketed the Pacific, putting areas on alert as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast.
According to Japanese police, 200 to 300 bodies were found in Sendai, the coastal city closest to the epicenter. Another 137 people were confirmed killed, with 531 missing. At least 627 people were injured.
TV footage taken from a military plane showed fires engulfing a large waterfront area in northeastern Japan. Houses and other buildings were ablaze across large swathes of land in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, near Sendai. The city, with a population of 74,000, has residential, light industry and fishing areas.
According to reports, police told the Kyodo news agency that a passenger train with an unknown number of people aboard was missing in one coastal area.
The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in Onahama to evacuate because the plant’s cooling system failed and pressure inside the reactor is rising. The reactor’s core remained hot even after a shutdown, and a radiation leak was seen as possible. The plant is 170 miles northeast of Tokyo.
The Defense Ministry dispatched dozens of troops trained to deal with chemical disaster to the plant in case of a radiation leak.
‘Major damage in broad areas’
Overall, dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter.
“The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
Even for 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 miles inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images of surging water broadcast by Japanese TV networks resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the cities, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.
Sendai airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris that included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.
The highways to the worst-hit coastal areas were severely damaged and communications, including telephone lines, were snapped. Train services in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were also suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo’s Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
Tomoko Koga, a 34-year-old translator and interpreter, told msnbc.com she couldn’t see any damage from her house in Chiba, outside of Tokyo, but was watching reports of devastation on the news. “I don’t even know what to say. I feel sorry that I’m safe and OK because there are so many people affected by this disaster.”
Koga was waiting to hear back from her father, who was stranded in his office in Tokyo. “He texted us right after the earthquake that there wouldn’t be any way for him to come back home. But after that, we didn’t hear from him. It’s really nerve-wracking.”
Austrian Lukas Schlatter said he saw houses and cars moving when the quake struck Japan, and it was even hard for him to stand, “like I was a little bit drunk.”
Schlatter, a 22-year-old intern at the Austrian embassy in Tokyo, said there was a lot of shaking and books fell off shelves in their office. “My Japanese co-workers were also scared because they said they had not experienced that strong of an earthquake in a long time,” he told msnbc.com in a Skype interview.
More than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs, the NHK news agency said.
Around Sendai, waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways.
More than 300 houses were washed away in the city of Ofunato alone. Television footage showed mangled debris, uprooted trees, upturned cars and shattered timber littering streets.
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 houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.
A large fire erupted at an oil refinery in Ichihara city and burned out of control with 100-foot-high flames whipping into the sky.
Massive earthquake hits Japan Photos