The biggest earthquake on record to hit Japan rocked the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10m high tsunami that killed hundreds of people and swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships and cars.
The Red Cross in Geneva said the wall of water was higher than some Pacific islands and a tsunami warning was issued for almost the entire Pacific basin, although alerts were lifted for some countries, including Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.
Up to 300 bodies were found in the coastal city of Sendai, media said. NHK television said the victims appeared to have drowned. The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.
The magnitude 8.9 quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping records 140 years ago, also caused many injuries and sparked fires while the tsunami prompted warnings for people to move to higher ground in coastal areas.
Domestic news agencies said a radioactive leak was possible at a nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and about 3,000 residents were told to evacuate the area. Some nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down and a refinery was ablaze.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan told politicians they needed to “save the country” after the disaster, which he said had caused widespread damage to swathes of the country’s north.
The quake split a highway near Tokyo and flattened several buildings in the northeast, and a train was unaccounted in a coastal area hit by the tsunami.
A ship carrying 100 people was swept away by the tsunami, Kyodo news agency said, and TV footage showed the roiling waters, blackened with debris, some of it ablaze, sweeping away homes, cars and bringing ships inland.
There were reports of at least 80 fires after the quake, Kyodo said.
Around 4.4 million homes were without power in northern Japan, media said. A hotel collapsed in the city of Sendai and people were feared buried in the rubble.
Electronics giant Sony Corp, one of the country’s biggest exporters, shut six factories, as air force jets raced toward the northeast coast to determine the extent of the damage.
The Bank of Japan, which has been struggling to boost the anemic economy, said it would do its utmost to ensure financial market stability as the yen and Japanese shares fell.
“I was terrified and I’m still frightened,” said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, the manager of a Chinese noodle restaurant in Tokyo, where buildings shook violently. “I’ve never experienced such a big quake before.”
The Philippines and Indonesia issued tsunami alerts, reviving memories of the giant tsunami which struck Asia in 2004.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued alerts for countries to the west and across the Pacific as far away as Colombia and Peru.
The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century and there were several strong aftershocks.
In Tokyo, there was widespread panic. An oil refinery near the city was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.
TV footage showed a muddy wall of water carrying debris across a large swathe of coastal farmland near the city of Sendai, which has a population of 1 million. Ships in one coastal area were lifted from the sea into a harbor where they lay helplessly on their side.
Sendai is 300km northeast of Tokyo and the epicenter at sea was not far away.
NHK TV showed flames and black smoke billowing from a -building in Odaiba, a Tokyo suburb, and bullet trains to the north of the country were halted.
Thick smoke was also pouring out of an industrial area in Yokohama’s Isogo area. TV showed residents running out of shaking buildings, shielding their heads with their hands from falling masonry.
TV footage showed boats, cars and trucks tossed around like toys in the water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. Kyodo said there were reports of fires in Sendai where waves carried cars across the runway at the airport.
The US navy said its ships were unaffected by the tsunami and were ready to provide disaster relief if needed. China offered to provide earthquake relief.
The quake struck just before the Tokyo stock market closed, pushing the Nikkei down to end at a five-week low. Nikkei futures trading in Osaka tumbled as much as 4.7 percent in reaction to the news.
The quake was the biggest since records began 140 years ago, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. It surpassed the Great Kanto quake of Sept. 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in Tokyo.
Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater.
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