AN earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale rocked Japan’s eastern coast today, unleashing a 13ft (4m) tsunami which swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland.
Fires triggered by the quake burned out of control up and down the coast, including one at an oil refinery.
At least one person was killed and there were reports of several injuries in the capital, Tokyo, hundreds of miles away, where buildings shook violently throughout the main quake and the wave of massive aftershocks that followed.
A tsunami warning was issued for dozens of Pacific countries, as far away as Chile.
Japan’s meteorological agency said that, within two hours, large tsunamis washed ashore into dozens of cities along a 1,300-mile (2,100km) stretch of the country’s eastern shore - from the northern island of Hokkaido to central Wakayama prefecture.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the quake caused "major damage in broad areas" but nuclear power plants in the area were not affected.
The government was preparing to send troops to the quake-hit areas to help relief efforts.
"This is a rare major quake, and damages could quickly rise by the minute," said Junichi Sawada, an official with Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency.
TV footage showed waves of muddy waters sweeping over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport, north of Tokyo, was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways. Fires spread through a section of the city, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The tsunami also roared over embankments in Sendai city, washing cars, houses and farm equipment inland before reversing directions and carrying them out to sea. Flames shot from some of the houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.
Elsewhere, large fishing boats lay upturned on land, some distance from the sea.
Officials were trying to assess damage, injuries and deaths but had no immediate details. Police said at least one person was killed in a house collapse in Ibaraki prefecture, just north-east of Tokyo.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control with 100ft (30m) flames whipping into the sky.
NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away by the tsunami and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture.
In various locations along the coast, footage showed massive damage from the tsunami, with cars, boats and even buildings being carried along by waters. Partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water.