Special Report: Merciless nature’s trail of death and destruction

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THERE was nothing created by humankind that could halt, or even pause its path.

It was an unstoppable, merciless, devastating force of nature that left death and devastation in its wake, reducing vast areas of one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries to a wasteland of destruction and horror.

Buildings, ships, trains, lorries, aircraft and cars were pulverised or tossed like matchwood by a giant wave more than 30ft high and up to 100 miles across which roared in from the sea, churning everything before it into an avalanche of debris that took lives and set refineries, factories and what had been homes ablaze.

And as its relentless progress continued across Japan, the tsunami unleashed by an undersea earthquake sent a tidal wave of fear across a vast swathe of the globe.

In Hawaii, the mainland United States, Canada and South America, millions knew the quake was sending the tsunami their way too, heading across the Pacific at the speed of a jet aircraft.

Worst of all, they knew too that they were as powerless to resist it as the people of Japan had been, their only option to abandon their homes and workplaces, flee to higher ground, and hope.

Until yesterday, a million people lived in the Sendai area of north-east Japan. It will be many days before the city knows for sure how many still live.

It was just another day for those people, of work or leisure or family life. That all changed at 2.46pm, when 80 miles out to sea and six miles below the surface, the sixth most powerful earthquake the world has ever recorded happened.

It was 8.9 on the Richter scale, 8,000 times more powerful than the quake that devastated Christchurch in New Zealand and destructive that in Tokyo, 250 miles to the south, the skyscrapers shook and workers fled in panic into the streets.

The quake could even be felt in Beijing, 1,500 miles distant.

This, though, was just the beginning. In the minutes that followed, there were 19 aftershocks, one as powerful as 7.1.

As a restaurant worker in Tokyo, Akira Tanaka, 54, said: “This is the kind of earthquake that hits once every 100 years.”

As the whole of Japan shook, people began to die all the way down the country’s coastline as fires were started by ruptured gas mains, and a refinery north of Tokyo went up in flames.

The worst was yet to come. Out to sea, a massive vortex was visible from the air as the quake displaced colossal amounts of water that formed the tsunami and sent 30ft high waves racing for the shore at speeds of up to 500mph.

On land, there was nothing that the people of Sendai, still shaken and frightened by the impact of the earthquake, could do and no time for them to even try before the waves came crashing in, destroying everything in their path.

Buildings were simply flattened, large ships and lorries tumbled over and over like toys, aircraft at the city’s airport crushed and mangled beyond recognition. Houses uprooted and set alight burned furiously as they were carried along on the tidal wave of destruction that surged ever onward.

Business and residential districts were obliterated.

Television pictures from the air showed apocalyptic, hardly believable images more like something from a Hollywood disaster blockbuster as ships torn from their moorings snapped through telephone wires or became the battering rams of the waves in destroying bridges. But this was all too real.

The surge of water seemed unending. It pulverised the coastal strip and powered inland for several miles, the debris of concrete and metal it now carried scouring built-up areas and farmland.

Fires were now raging all along the coast, and a nuclear alert was issued when the damage caused stopped the cooling system working at an atomic power station.

Eventually, after what seemed like an age to a Japan paralysed by shock and to a watching world numbed by the sheer scale of the disaster unfolding on live television, the power of the waves began to ease and, gradually, the waters receded.

But in doing so, they revealed anew the horrors wreaked by them.

There were hundreds of bodies on a beach, a ship with a hundred more missing, even a passenger train that could not be found, perhaps even sucked into the Pacific by the ebbing tsunami.

The death toll mounted by the hour; as did the tally of the missing and unaccounted for, people who had been at work, or at home, the children of Sendai.

As those who survived began counting the human and material cost of what had befallen them, and the Japanese government declared a state of emergency, other countries began to brace themselves for the worst.

Evacuations were ordered in Hawaii and the west coast of the US, in Mexico and Chile, as a nerve-shredding wait began.

The tsunami was headed west as well as east, rippling out from the epicentre of the quake and heading across the Pacific with implacable force.

It would be a wait of many hours – Hawaii would not know for six hours what it was destined for; Chile would have to wait an agonising 21 hours.

And even if Hawaii and the rest escaped with the six-foot waves which arrived first, that was no guarantee that worse was not to follow.

Even today, as the scale of the disaster becomes more apparent, millions still wait in the knowledge that they have no defence against what might come other than to hope.