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.Related content
The US Geological Survey said the quake was a magnitude 8.9, while Japan's meteorological agency measured it at 8.4. It struck at 2.46pm local time and was followed by 12 powerful aftershocks, seven of them at least 6.3, the size of the quake which struck New Zealand recently.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, South East Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities said they expected a 3ft (1m) high tsunami.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10km), about 80 miles (125km) off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles (380km) north-east of Tokyo.
In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo.
Several nuclear plants along the coast were partially shut down, but there were no reports of any radioactive leakage.
In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms. NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
The ceiling in Kudan Kaikan, a large hall in Tokyo, collapsed, injuring an unknown number of people, NHK said.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in Tokyo at his office in a trading company when the quake hit.
It sent bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor, and cracks appeared in the walls.
"I’ve been through many earthquakes, but I’ve never felt anything like this," he said. "I don’t know if we’ll be able to get home tonight."
Footage on NHK from its Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks.
It also showed a glass shelter at a bus stop in Tokyo destroyed by the quake and a weeping woman nearby being comforted by another woman.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday.
Thirty minutes after the main quake, tall buildings were still swaying in Tokyo and mobile phone networks were not working.
Japan’s Coast Guard has set up a task force and officials are standing by for emergency contingencies, Coast Guard official Yosuke Oi said.
"I’m afraid we’ll soon find out about damages, since the quake was so strong," he said.
In Tokyo, hundreds of people were evacuated from Shinjuku train station, the world’s busiest, to a nearby park. Trains were halted.
Tokyo’s main airport was closed. A large section of the ceiling at the one-year-old airport at Ibaraki, about 50 miles (80km) north-east of Tokyo, fell to the floor with a powerful crash.
Dozens of fires were reported in northern prefectures of Fukushima, Sendai, Iwate and Ibaraki. Collapsed homes and landslides were also reported in Miyagi.
Japan’s worst previous earthquake was in 1923 in Canto, which killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. An earthquake in Kobe city in 1996 killed 5,502 people.