The morning after Japan was struck by the most powerful earthquake to hit the island nation in recorded history and the tsunami it unleashed -- and even as the earth continued to twitch with aftershocks -- the disaster's massive impact was only beginning to be revealed.
Rescue efforts began with the first light as military helicopters plucked survivors from roofs and carried them to safety.
The 8.9-magnitude temblor, which was centered near the east coast of Japan, killed hundreds of people, caused the formation of 30-foot walls of water that swept across rice fields, engulfed entire towns, dragged houses onto highways, and tossed cars and boats like toys. Some waves reached six miles (10 kilometers) inland in Miyagi Prefecture on Japan's east coast.
The death toll from the tsunami and earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, was in the hundreds, but Japanese news 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 waterline in Sendai, a port city in northeastern Japan and the closest major city to the epicenter.
Thousands of homes were destroyed, many roads were impassable, trains and buses were not running, and power and cellphones remained down. On Saturday morning, the JR rail company said that there were three trains missing in parts of two northern prefectures.
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.
Japanese officials on Saturday issued broad evacuation orders for people living in the vicinity of two separate nuclear power plants that had experienced breakdowns in their cooling systems as a result of the earthquake, and they warned that small amounts of radiation could leak from both plants.
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 waves as high as 30 feet rushed onto shore, whisking away cars and carrying blazing buildings toward factories, fields and highways.
By Saturday 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 several districts in an area near Sendai’s airport were annihilated.
Rescuers found 870 people in one elementary school on Saturday 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 City. By Saturday morning, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and firefighters had evacuated about 150 of them.
On the rooftop of Chuo Hospital in the city of Iwanuma, doctors and nurses were waving white flags and pink umbrellas, according to TV Asahi. On the floor of the roof, they wrote “Help” in English, and “Food” in Japanese. The reporter, observing the scene from a helicopter, said, “If anyone in the City Hall office is watching, please help them.”
The station also showed scenes of people stranded on a bridge, cut off by water on both sides near the mouth of the Abukuma River in Miyagi Prefecture.
People were frantically searching for their relatives. Fumiaki Yamato, 70, was in his second home in a mountain village outside of Sendai when the earthquake struck. He spoke from his car as he was driving toward Sendai trying to find the rest of his family. While it usually takes about an hour to drive to the city, parts of the road were impassable. “I’m getting worried,” he said as he pulled over to take a reporter’s call. “I don’t know how many hours it’s going to take.”
Japanese, accustomed to frequent earthquakes, were stunned by this one’s magnitude and the more than 100 aftershocks, many equivalent to major quakes.
“I never experienced such a strong earthquake in my life,” said Toshiaki Takahashi, 49, an official at Sendai City Hall. “I thought it would stop, but it just kept shaking and shaking, and getting stronger.”
Train service was shut down across central and northern Japan, including Tokyo, and air travel was severely disrupted.