Huge tsunami slams Japan, sweeps across Pacific basin


TOKYO, March 11 (Reuters): The biggest earthquake on record to hit Japan struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-meter tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships, cars and farm buildings.
The Red Cross in Geneva said the wall of water was higher than some Pacific islands and a tsunami warning was issued for almost the entire Pacific basin, though alerts were lifted for some countries in the region, including Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.
At least 59 people had been killed in the quake and tsunami in Japan, broadcaster NHK said, adding that many were missing. The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of Japan`s coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.The 8.9 magnitude quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping records 140 years ago, caused many injuries and sparked fires while the tsunami prompted warnings to people to move to higher ground in coastal areas.
Domestic news agencies said a radoactive leak was possible at a nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture, north of Tokyo, and some 2,000 residents had been told to evacuate the area. Some nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down and a refinery was ablaze.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan told politicians they needed to “save the country” after the disaster which he said had caused widespread damage to swathes of the country`s north.
The quake split a highway near Tokyo and flattened several buildings in the northeast and a train was unaccounted in a coastal area hit by the tsunami.
A ship carrying 100 people had been swept away by the tsunami, Kyodo news agency said, and TV footage showed the roiling waters, blackened with debris, some of it ablaze, sweeping away homes, cars and bringing ships inland.
There were reports of at least 80 locations on fire after the quake, Kyodo said.Around 4.4 million homes were without power in northern Japan, media said. A hotel collapsed in the city of Sendai and people were feared buried in the rubble.
Electronics giant Sony Corp, one of the country`s biggest exporters, shut six factories, as air force jets raced toward the northeast coast to determine the extent of the damage.
The Bank of Japan, which has been struggling to boost the anemic economy, said it would do its utmost to ensure financial market stability as the yen and Japanese shares fell.
“I was terrified and I`m still frightened,” said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, manager of a Chinese noodle restaurant in Tokyo, where buildings shook violently. “I`ve never experienced such a big quake before.”
The Philippine and Indonesia issued tsunami alerts, reviving memories of the giant tsunami which struck Asia in 2004. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued alerts for countries to the west and across the Pacific as far away as Colombia and Peru.
The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century.
There were several strong aftershocks. In Tokyo, there was widespread panic. An oil refinery near the city was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.
“People are flooding the streets. It`s incredible. Everyone is trying to get home but I didn`t see any taxis in Ginza, where there are usually plenty,” said Koji Goto, a 43-year-old Tokyo resident.
TV footage showed a muddy wall of water carrying debris across a large swathe of coastal farmland near the city of Sendai, which has a population of one million. Ships in once coastal area were lifted from the sea into a harbor where they lay helplessly on their side.
Sendai is 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo and the epicenter at sea was not far away.
NHK television showed flames and black smoke billowing from a building in Odaiba, a Tokyo suburb, and bullet trains to the north of the country were halted. Thick smoke was also pouring out of an industrial area in Yokohama`s Isogo area. TV showed residents of the city running out of shaking buildings, shielding their heads with their hands from falling masonry.
TV footage showed boats, cars and trucks tossed around like toys in the water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. An overpass, location unknown, appeared to have collapsed and cars were turning around and speeding away. Kyodo said there were reports of fires in Sendai where waves carried cars across the runway at the airport.
“The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks,” Reuters correspondent Linda Sieg said in Tokyo. “It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago.”


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