At least 1,000 feared dead after Japan's worst quake

 

A devastating tsunami triggered by the biggest earthquake on record in Japan looks set to kill at least 1,000 people along the northeastern coast on today after a wall of water swept away everything in its path.

The Japanese government warned there could be a small radiation leak from a nuclear reactor whose cooling system was knocked out by the quake. About 3,000 residents in the area some 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo had been moved out of harm's way.

Japan's prime minister Naoto Kan later ordered an evacuation zone around the plant be expanded to 10 km (6 miles) from 3 km.

Underscoring grave concerns about the Fukushima plant, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the US air force had delivered coolant to avert a rise in the temperature of the facility's nuclear rods. But a US military official later said Japan had ultimately handled the matter on its own.

The unfolding disaster in the wake of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and 33ft high tsunami prompted offers of help from dozens of countries. China said rescuers were ready to help with quake relief while President Barack Obama told Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan the United State would assist in any way.

Domestic media said the death toll was expected to exceed 1,000, most of whom appeared to have drowned. The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.

Tsunami warnings were issued across the Pacific but were later lifted for some of the most populated countries in the region, including Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand.

Chile's interior ministry has ordered the evacuation of "floodable" areas along the country's Pacific coast.

Up to 300 people bodies have been found in Sandai alone following 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.

"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Mr Kan told reporters.

In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried under rubble could be heard calling out "help" and "when are we going to be rescued", Kyodo news agency reported.

Around 4.4 million homes were without power in northern Japan, media said. A hotel collapsed in the city of Sendai, and people are feared buried in the rubble. A ship carrying 100 people had been swept away by the tsunami, Kyodo news agency added.

Electronics giant Sony, one of the country's biggest exporters, shut six factories. The Bank of Japan, which has been struggling to boost the anaemic 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."

Earlier today, Philippine and Indonesian authorities 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.

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 harbour where they lay helplessly on their side. Sendai is 300km northeast of Tokyo, and the epicentre 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."

The quake was the biggest since records began 140 years ago, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. It surpasses the Great Kanto quake of September 1st, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.

The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion (€72 billion) in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. Economic damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was estimated at about $10 billion.

Passengers on a subway line in Tokyo screamed and grabbed other passengers' hands during the quake. The shaking was so bad it was hard to stand, said Reuters reporter Mariko Katsumura.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has set up a helpline for people concerned about Irish citizens in Japan. The number is 01 4180233. A spokeswoman for the department said an estimated 2,000 Irish citizens are in Japan.

Irish Ambassador to Japan John Neary said there were so far no reports of any Irish citizen in difficulty. He said most Irish citizens living in that country were based in the Tokyo area.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore spoke to the ambassador by telephone this morning to be updated on the situation. The Minister said it would be "very helpful" if family members or friends of Irish citizens living in Japan would let the crisis centre at the Department of Foreign Affairs know when they had been located.

Mr Gilmore expressed sympathy at the loss of life and devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

Are you in Japan? Have you been affected by the earthquake? Send your comments to news@irishtimes.com

Reuters