Tokyo – A powerful tsunami spawned by the largest earthquake in Japan’s history slammed the eastern coast on Friday, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. At least 19 people have been reported killed.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake was followed by at least 19 aftershocks, most of them of more than magnitude 6.0. Dozens of cities and villages along the 2 100km stretch of the country’s eastern shore were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre in the sea off the north-eastern coast.
A tsunami warning was issued for dozens of Pacific countries, as far away as Chile. Reports said 19 people were killed. The government confirmed only five deaths.
“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.
Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the cities, slamming against overpasses. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water.
Waves of muddy waters swept over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport, north of Tokyo, was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways. Fires spread through a section of the city, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing cars, houses and farm equipment inland before reversing directions and carrying them out to sea. Flames shot from some of the houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.
“Our initial assessment indicate that there has already been enormous damage,” Chief government spokesperson 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.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control with 30m-high flames whipping into the sky.
NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture.
The US Geological Survey said the 14:46 earthquake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, according to NHK.
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 1m high tsunami.
The quake struck at a depth of 10km, about 125km off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 380km northeast of Tokyo.
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 333m steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Several nuclear plants along the coast were partially shut down, but there were no reports of any radioactive leakage.
In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms. NHK said more than four million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
A 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.”
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.
Thirty minutes after the main quake, tall buildings were still swaying in Tokyo and mobile phone networks were not working. Japan’s Coast Guard set up a task force and officials were standing by for emergency contingencies, Coast Guard official Yosuke Oi said.
“I’m afraid we’ll soon find out about damages, since the quake was so strong,” he said.
Tokyo’s main airport was closed. A large section of the ceiling at the 1-year-old airport at Ibaraki, about 80km northeast of Tokyo, fell to the floor with a powerful crash.
‘Ring of Fire’
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 Canto, 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% of the world’s quakes occur, including the one that triggered the December 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.