TENS of thousands of people were feared dead yesterday after a tsunami triggered by one of the biggest earthquakes in history hit Japan.
Ships, buildings and cars were swept away as monster 33ft waves smashed into the port city of Sendai.
The 8.9 magnitude quake sparked a nuclear emergency when it shut down the cooling systems at the country’s largest atomic plant.
Experts were last night battling to stop radiation leaks as 6,000 people were evacuated and US jets flew in chemicals to avert a disaster.
Amid the desolation, more than 300 bodies washed up when the catastrophic flood waters retreated.
But Japanese authorities said 80,000 people are missing and fear the death toll will rise dramatically in the coming days. Hundreds of fires continued to burn last night in Kesennuma, a coastal town of 70,000 people, with little hope of being put out.
A boat carrying 80 dock workers was swept away in the 500mph tidal wave. A cruise ship with 100 passengers is also thought to be missing.
Two bullet trains were picked up and thrown from the tracks like toys, one of them with 400 passengers which was still missing last night. As entire communities remained cut off, one emergency worker said: “We witnessed biblical scenes.
“Huge container ships were tossed around like matchsticks. There was nothing anyone could do.”
The quake is the sixth largest of all time and the worst to hit Japan.
Capital Tokyo survived it relatively unscathed. But one million residents in the north eastern city of Sendai watched in horror as the mammoth wall of water struck without warning.
Witnesses said there was an eerie silence “like the world had stopped” seconds before the quake hit.
Thousands of people were forced to run for their lives as killer waves full of mud and debris swallowed neighbourhoods. Desperate drivers tried to outrun the water in their cars.
Bridges were swept away and a packed hotel in the city collapsed when the quake hit at 2.46pm (5.46am UK time).
A worldwide tsunami warning was issued in the aftermath of the tremor, which struck six miles down and 80 miles off the eastern coast. Last night Japanese scientists decided to release radioactive vapour to ease temperatures at the Fukushima Daiich nuclear plant.
The pressure inside one of six boiling water reactors had risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal.
But experts said the radioactive element in the vapour released would not affect the environment or human health. Their main aim is to prevent radiation leaks as they repair vital cooling systems.
The quake also started a fire in a turbine building at a nuclear power plant in north-eastern Japan, but the reactor was reported to be secure.
Panic swept the Pacific after the Red Cross warned of a potential wall of water higher than many islands. In Guam, the tsunami broke two US Navy submarines from their moorings.
And in Hawaii, tens of thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate coastal areas.
Police drove along main roads in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, telling terrified holidaymakers: “This is not a drill.” But when the waves hit at 3am they were not as big as expected. Warnings were also issued along the west coast of America, Canada, the Philippines, Indonesia and South America.
Experts said the quake was 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last month.
One of the dead was a girl of six who was crushed when the ceiling of supermarket collapsed in Miyagi.
Several others died when a massive landslide hit a remote rural area.
In north-eastern Fukushima, a dam collapsed and swept away homes after the tremor caused huge cracks.
Four million people in Tokyo alone were left without power. Mobile phone and internet connections were cut across Japan. BA and Virgin have cancelled flights to the city. Workers in the captial cowered under desks as buildings swayed. Skyscrapers continued to rattle as dozens of aftershocks – including a giant 7.4 magnitude – rattled the capital for more than an hour.
Fears of more devastation rose sharply again last night when a 6.6 magnitude quake struck 105 miles north of Tokyo around 7pm UK time.
There were no immediate reports of damage.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: “The earthquake has caused major damage. We will secure the safety of the people and ask them to be cautious and react calmly.”
Japan is one of the most seismically active areas in the world.
SOURCE : http://www.mirror.co.uk/