The 8.9 magnitude earthquake, which was centered near the east coast of Japan, killed hundreds of people, caused the formation of 30-foot walls of water that swept across rice fields, engulfed entire towns, dragged houses onto highways, and tossed cars and boats like toys. Some waves reached 10 kilometers inland in Miyagi Prefecture on Japan’s east coast.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time and was the biggest to hit Japan since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. It ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, scientists said.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the day, but the true extent of the disaster was not known because roads to the worst-hit areas were washed away or blocked by debris and airports were closed.
Large fishing boats and other vessels rode the high waves ashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. A fleet of partially submerged cars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.
Highways to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. Telephone lines snapped. Train service was suspended in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serves 10 million people a day. Untold numbers of people were stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo’s Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
Japan Railways said it could not trace four trains along the north-eastern coast. A ship carrying 100 people was also reported missing.
Some 1,800 homes were reported to have been destroyed in the city of Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture. And a dam burst in north-eastern Fukushima prefecture, sweeping away homes, Kyodo news agency reported.
Scores of aftershocks jarred the country Saturday, punctuated by a pair of strong earthquakes in the early morning, including one with a magnitude of 7.1 and another with a magnitude of 6.6.
Radioactive material may have leaked from an atomic power plant in northeast Japan, a major electric company said Saturday, according to a news agency report. Citing the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Japan’s Kyodo News Agency said that radioactive substances may have seeped out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, about 260 kilometers north of Tokyo.
Police said 200-300 bodies were found in Sendai, although the official casualty toll was 185 killed, 741 missing and 948 injured.
Japan’s worst previous quake was a magnitude 8.3 in Kanto that killed 143,000 people in 1923. And 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995.