MORE than 1,000 people are feared dead and untold numbers left homeless after one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded triggered a massive tsunami which devastated coastal towns and cities across large parts of Japan.
The 8.9-magnitude quake off the Asian island’s north-east coastline sent huge shock-waves through much of the country and an unstoppable 30ft wall of water hurtling in to shore, devastating entire towns and communities which lay in its path.
Japanese officials last night said the final death toll is likely to be well over 1,000, and with dawn breaking the full extent of the carnage was slowly becoming clear.
Towns and cities across the north-east of the country were destroyed by flooding, with massive fires still raging out of control.
“The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan,” the ashen-faced Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, said.
Islands across the Pacific and countries as far away as South America, Canada, Russia and the US were placed on tsunami alert following the quake, each facing an agonising wait yesterday as huge tidal waves raced across the ocean at speeds of up to 500mph.
Hours later, the tsunami finally hit Hawaii, thousands of miles across the Pacific, but did not cause major damage. It appeared last night that most islands had escaped the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which left hundreds of thousands dead.
But the colossal earthquake – estimated to be 8,000 times larger than the one which devastated Christchurch in New Zealand just 17 days ago – caused widespread damage across Japan.
Eleven nuclear plants instantly shut down across the country as the quake hit, with residents moved from the area around the Fukushima reactor after its cooling system failed. The Japanese Government announced a state of “nuclear emergency”, and technicians were battling to bring the reactor under control last night with temperatures inside rising. The prospect of a meltdown was said to be possible but remote.
The capital Tokyo, some 300 miles to the south, experienced some of the biggest tremors in living memory when the earthquake struck around 2.45pm yesterday afternoon.
Some four million homes were left without power and with public transport networks suspended thousands of commuters were facing a night in makeshift accommodation or out on the streets.
But it was the north-east of the country which was by far the hardest hit, as a massive wave of water tore many miles deep inland.
Dramatic footage of the tsunami showed entire villages being simply washed away as the huge wave bulldozed everything in its path.
Ships, cars and buildings were picked up and carried along with the force of the water, some of them ablaze as they travelled.
A boat carrying around 100 people and several commuter trains packed with passengers were reported missing, along with residents living in remote areas.
Huge fires broke out at oil refineries and factories across the north-east of the country.
Police said 200 to 300 bodies have already been found in the north-eastern coastal city of Sendai, the city closest to the epicentre. Another 137 were confirmed killed, with more than 500 missing.
Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by the violent tremors. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night, with no apparent hope of being extinguished.
World leaders including US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed their sympathy and support for the Japanese people yesterday, and said international teams were on stand-by to assist with the huge rescue effort now getting under way.
The Foreign Office said there have been no reports so far of any British casualties, but that detailed information remained scarce. Some 14,000 British people are estimated to live in Japan, with many more there as tourists
Seismologists said yesterday’s earthquake was the largest ever recorded in Japan and was followed in the ensuing hours by more than 50 aftershocks – many of them of more than 6.0-magnitude.
Japan’s worst previous quake was an 8.3-magnitude tremor in Kanto in 1923, which killed 143,000 people. An earthquake in Kobe in 1995 killed 6,400 people.