Dozens injured as huge quake puts Japan on tsunami alert

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The Independent Online

A big earthquake rattled the north of Japan, injuring dozens of people, triggering a tsunami warning and shutting several nuclear power stations and train lines.

The 7.2-magnitude quake struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture, 180 miles north of Tokyo, at 11.46am local time yesterday, and was felt through most of the main island of Honshu, paralysing transport in several areas.

Landslides and collapsed buildings were reported as far as 200 miles from the epicentre, and Tokyo-bound bullet-trains and the runway at Japan's main international gateway, Narita airport, were temporarily closed.

In Tokyo, tall buildings swayed for up to a minute and lifts stopped, trapping people inside. Jonny Wilkinson, the England rugby star, was among those in a Tokyo hotel when the walls began to shake.

A small tsunami was reported in several places along the coastline before the government lifted its warning. Initial reports were that at least 62 people had been injured, including 26 in an indoor pool in Sendai City when the roof collapsed, showering them with glass and debris.

"The roof panels gave way and came down on top of us," a swimmer told the state broadcaster NHK. "I was hit on the head and almost knocked out. It was terrifying."

A resident of Kawasaki in Miyagi prefecture said: "I've never experienced such a powerful earthquake. I didn't know what to do so I just crawled under the table and trembled."

Another man who watched his house collapse in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, said: "It was almost like watching a movie in slow motion. I couldn't believe it and I just completely froze. Nothing is scarier than an earthquake." The Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who is fighting an election, broke from campaigning and visited the government's crisis management centre, set up to oversee rescue operations. Self-Defence Force units have been sent to Miyagi to help clean up.

It was Japan's strongest quake since last October's devastating 6.8 earthquake in Niigata prefecture about 150 miles north of Tokyo, which killed 36 people and injured more than 2,000. A magnitude-six quake hit the Tokyo metropolitan area last month, injuring at least 27.

In 1978, a quake in almost exactly the same area killed 28 and injured more than 10,000 people, indicating that Japan is better equipped to deal with large quakes since the Kobe earthquake killed 6,400 people in 1995, shattering faith in the country's disaster-prevention measures.

But yesterday has again raised fears about the safety of Japan's nuclear power plants, at least three of which automatically shut when the quake hit. Japan has accelerated the building of plants in response to threats to oil supplies from the Middle East, despite sitting on one of the world's most unstable geographical foundations. Tokyo lives in fear of a repeat of the 1923 earthquake that killed 140,000 people and reduced much of the city and nearby Yokohama to rubble. A government report last December estimated a similar quake today could kill 13,000, and said there is a 70 per cent chance of such a disaster within 30 years.

Yoshio Kushida, an independent scientist and Tokyo native who has dedicated his life to trying to forecast earthquakes, says he will never return to the city. "I was so frightened growing up there," he said. "It's the most dangerous city in the world. They should never have made it the capital."