The strongest earthquake ever to hit Japan unleashed a terrifying 10-metre-high tsunami that claimed hundreds of lives on Friday, with a nuclear plant and petrochemical complex among multiple sites set ablaze.
The monster wall of water generated by the 8.9-magnitude quake — the seventh biggest in history — pulverised the northeastern city of Sendai, where police reportedly said 200-300 bodies had been found.
The 33-foot wave of black water sent shipping containers, cars and debris crashing through the streets of Sendai and across open farmland, while a tidal wave of debris-littered mud destroyed everything in its path.
More than 90 people were confirmed killed in addition to the bodies found in Sendai, public broadcaster NHK reported. “The damage is so enormous that it will take us much time to gather data,” an official at the National Police Agency said.
The wave set off tsunami alerts across the Pacific, including in the US state of Hawaii. (Read story)
A Japanese ship with 100 people aboard was reportedly carried away while more than 300 houses were destroyed in the remote city of Ofunato. (Ship missing: Read full story)
The government said the tsunami and quake, which was felt in Beijing some 2,500 km away, had caused "tremendous damage", while aerial footage showed massive flooding in northern towns. The quake, which lasted about two minutes, rattled buildings in greater Tokyo, the world's largest urban area and home to some 30 million people.
In Tokyo, millions who had earlier fled swaying buildings were stranded far away from home in the evening after the earthquake shut down the capital's vast subway system. The mobile phone network was strained to breaking point.
The government used loudspeaker alerts and TV broadcasts to urge people to stay near their workplaces rather than risk a long walk home, as highways leading out of the city centre were choked and hotels rapidly filled up.
More than 2.2 lakh people were killed when a 9.1-magnitude quake hit off Indonesia in 2004, unleashing a massive tsunami that devastated coastlines in countries around the Indian Ocean as far away as Africa. However, small quakes are felt every day somewhere in Japan and people take part in regular drills at schools and workplaces.
There was also major disruption to air travel and bullet train services. A passenger train with an unknown number of people aboard was unaccounted for on a line outside Sendai, Kyodo News reported.
The government insisted there was no risk of radiation leaking from Japan's network of advanced nuclear power plants, which are designed to shut down as soon as the earth shakes in one of the world's most quake-prone countries.
But authorities ordered 2,000 residents living by a nuclear plant in Fukushima, south of Sendai, to evacuate after a reactor cooling system failed. A fire broke out in the turbine building of another nuclear plant in Onagawa.
The tsunami also reached Sendai airport, submerging the runway while a process known as liquefaction, caused by the intense shaking of the tremor, turned parts of the ground to liquid. "I've never seen anything like this" said Ken Hoshi, a government official in Ishinomaki, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, where Sendai is located.