Rescuers struggled to reach survivors this morning as Japan reeled after an earthquake and tsunami struck in deadly tandem. An 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, set off a devastating tsunami that sent walls of water washing over coastal cities in the north. Concerns mounted over possible radiation leaks from two nuclear plants near the earthquake zone.
States of emergency were declared for five nuclear reactors at two power plants after the units lost cooling ability after the quake. Some radiation had seeped outside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, with levels just outside the facility's main gate measured at eight times normal, public broadcaster NHK quoted nuclear safety officials as saying.
Yukio Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary of the Japanese government, said the plant was releasing steam with a "very small" amount of radioactive material to relieve pressure in one reactor. The government earlier declared an "atomic power emergency" and evacuated people, a difficult challenge in the midst of a natural catastrophe.
The crisis at the Daiichi station came as Tokyo Electric Power, the operator, said it had also lost its ability to control pressure in some of the reactors at a second plant, known as Daini, about 10 miles away.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said before boarding a helicopter to visit the Daiichi plant that the government had expanded the evacuation area around the plant to a 6-mile radius from a 2-mile radius.
The death toll from the quake and the tsunami was in the hundreds, but Japanese media quoted government officials as saying that it would almost certainly rise to more than 1,000. About 200 to 300 bodies were found along the water line in Sendai, a port city in the northeastern part of the country and the closest major city to the epicenter. Nearly 17 million people live in the affected areas.
Thousands of homes were destroyed, many roads were impassible and power and cell phones remained down.
While the loss of life and property may yet be considerable, many lives were certainly saved by Japan's extensive disaster preparedness and strict construction codes. Japan's economy was spared a more devastating blow because the earthquake hit far from its industrial heartland.
On Friday, at 2:46 p.m. Tokyo time, the quake struck. First came the roar and rumble of the temblor, shaking skyscrapers, toppling furniture and buckling highways. Then, 30 to 35 minutes later, waves as high as 30 feet rushed onto shore, whisking away cars and carrying blazing buildings toward factories, fields and highways.
By this morning, Japan was filled with scenes of desperation, as stranded survivors called for help and rescuers searched for people buried in the rubble. Kazushige Itabashi, an official in Natori city, one of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami, said that several districts near Sendai airport had been annihilated.
Rescuers found 870 people in one elementary school this morning and were trying to reach 1,200 people in the junior high school, closer to the water. There was no electricity and no water for people in shelters. According to a newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun, about 600 people were on the roof of a public grade school in Sendai. By morning, Japan's Self-Defense Forces and firefighters had evacuated about 150 of them.
U.S. offers help
President Barack Obama, saying he was "heartbroken" by the images of devastation, pledged U.S. assistance. "Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region, and we're going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy," Obama said. A U.S. aircraft carrier is in Japan, and a second is on its way to assist with the recovery efforts. A U.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands.
The State Department said no Americans were killed or injured in Japan, and there were no reports of damage to U.S. installations or ships in the area. The department issued a travel alert, strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Japan.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was the most severe worldwide since an 8.8 magnitude quake off the coast of Chile a little more than a year ago that killed more than 400. It was less powerful than the 9.1 magnitude quake that struck off Northern Sumatra in late 2004. That quake spawned a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean.
Grim scene unfolds
After the temblor and the tsunami, a grim accounting of lost infrastructure and lives lay ahead. But as of this morning, Japan remained a country reckoning with images, not numbers. Describing what could become one of the country's deepest traumas since World War II, television broadcasters appeared on camera wearing helmets, fearful of aftershocks. People in Tokyo shared YouTube videos of downtown skyscrapers swaying back and forth and witnesses screaming.
Initial reports from the hardest-hit part of the country pointed to the monumental relief efforts ahead. Much of the northern city of Kesennuma was on fire. Japanese officials said they had lost contact with four trains.
Prime Minister Kan addressed the nation, saying the government will do "everything possible to minimize the damage." He called for international assistance and for Japanese to help one another. "We ask the people of Japan to exercise the spirit of fraternity and act fast and to assist one's family and neighbors," Kan said.
Tokyo's main Narita international airport halted flights for much of Friday afternoon. Stranded workers in downtown Tokyo crowded around televisions, watching the NHK network replay a loop of the images: slow-dancing Tokyo skyscrapers and building-blitzing waves. Television footage showed towering walls of water surging toward the shoreline, pulling cars into the surf and discarding ships on land.
U.S. avoids disaster
The earthquake set off tsunami warnings around the Pacific Rim, including in Hawaii and California. Sirens blared in Hawaii. The West Coast pulled back from the shoreline, fearing the worst.
The alerts moved faster than the waves, giving millions of people across the Pacific Rim hours to prepare.
In the end, harbors and marinas in California and Oregon bore the brunt of the damage, estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Boats crashed into each other, some vessels were pulled out to sea and docks were ripped out. Rescue crews searched for a man who was swept out to sea while taking pictures near Crescent City, Calif., a town of 7,500 people 20 miles south of the Oregon border.
Crescent City was the scene of a devastating tsunami in 1964 which killed 11 people and destroyed 289 homes and businesses, in the wake of an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Alaska.
Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.