The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake was followed by at least 20aftershocks, most of them of more than magnitude 6.0. Dozens of cities and villages along the 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) stretch of the country’s eastern shore were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the epicenter in the sea off the northeastern coast.
A tsunami warning was issued for dozens of Pacific countries, as far away as Chile.
Kyodo news agency said 15 people were killed. The government confirmed only five deaths.
“The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions.
Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the cities, slamming against overpasses. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water.
Waves of muddy waters swept 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 roared over embankments, 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.
“Our initial assessment indicate that there has already been enormous damage,” Chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said. “We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment.”
He said the Defense Ministry was sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo and was burning out of control with 100-foot (30 meter) -high flames whipping into the sky.
NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, according to NHK.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities said they expect a 3-foot (1-meter) high tsunami.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about 80 miles (125 kilometers) off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northeast 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. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 333-meter (1,093-foot) steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
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.
A large numbers of people waited at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest train station, for service to resume so they could go home. TV announcers urged workers not to leave their offices to prevent injuries in case of more strong aftershocks.
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 their 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 completely smashed 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