Japan paralysed as deadly quake triggers tsunami in day of horror

Tens of thousands missing as massive tsunami follows devastating earthquake

Japan's most powerful earthquake in centuries struck yesterday, triggering fires, deadly 10m (33ft) waves and tsunami alerts across at least 20 countries.

This morning, the death toll was estimated at more than 1,300, most of them drowned – a toll which looks sure to rise significantly in the coming hours and days with many thousands reported missing. And fears about potential nuclear disaster were raised when emergencies were declared at two plants. One was planning to release radioactive vapour to ease pressure on the reactor.

The massive 8.9 magnitude quake hit the north of the country 230 miles (373km) from Tokyo. Near the epicentre and in the worst-hit Miyagi Prefecture, houses toppled over or collapsed, burying dozens of people. Extraordinary television images showed a tide of muddy water sweeping cars and houses across open land at high speed.

The day was punctuated with shocking images of devastation and public paralysis. Police reported a ship carrying more than 100 people was swept away in the giant tsunami that crashed into the country's north-east. A bullet train was reported missing on the line connecting Sendai and the nearby city of Ishinomaki, while later another train was feared to have been swept away. Two other trains were also missing.

A major blast rocked a petrochemical complex in Chiba, outside the capital. The earthquake shut Japan's busiest main international airport, brought the capital's entire rail network to a halt and sent thousands of office workers spilling out on to the streets.

In Miyagi, fire broke out at the Onagawa nuclear plant and at least three other plants were automatically shut down. The government declared a state of emergency – Japan's first – at the Fukushima No 1 plant after reporting that its cooling system had failed. A report by Kyodo News said one reactor in the plant "could not be cooled". A safety panel said radiation levels inside the reactor were 1,000 times higher than normal, the agency added later. Residents living within 10km of the plant had been told to evacuate the area. An emergency was later declared for its sister plant at the facility.

Water reportedly spilled from pools containing fuel rods at the world's largest nuclear power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, but there were no reports of radioactive leaks. News of the quake left the International Atomic Energy Agency scrambling for details about the fate of Japan's network of reactors, which supply the country with a third of its energy needs.

But the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, insisted they were safe. "At present we have no reports of any radioactive materials or otherwise affecting the surrounding areas," he said in a statement.

At railway stations in the centre of Tokyo, thousands of commuters waiting to board trains gasped and clung on to each other as the earthquake struck, rocking platforms and buildings and sending glass showering down from the roof. In the city's business districts, office workers in safety helmets crowded the streets, nervously glancing upwards for falling debris and glass. "It just seemed to go on for ever," said Nahoko Ishii, who was waiting for a train in Tokyo Station when the earthquake struck. "I've never experienced anything that terrifying in my life."

Mobile phone networks crashed as millions tried to call family and friends in the minutes and hours after the quake. The yen fell in currency markets immediately afterwards. As the country absorbed the devastating news, Prime Minister Kan appeared on television to commiserate with grieving families and to ask the public to stay vigilant and to keep abreast of news reports. "I ask everyone to act calmly," he said.

Japan's Meteorological Agency said the quake was the most powerful in the country's long history of recorded seismic activity, exceeding even the 1923 disaster that levelled much of Tokyo and nearby Yokohama and killed more than 100,000 people. Only the country's state-of-the-art building and warning systems prevented the death toll from being much higher.

News of deaths and injuries began coming in yesterday in the hours after the quake struck about 20km off the coast of Iwate Prefecture at 2.46pm. There were early reports of deaths in chemical spills and building collapses. Later the toll soared as 200 to 300 bodies were found in one ward of Sendai alone. As authorities account for the missing and take a more detailed toll in the days ahead, that could rise considerably. Hundreds more have been hurt, some seriously. At least 25 were injured when the ceiling in Tokyo's historic Kudan Kaikan hall collapsed. Japanese television reported stories of partially destroyed homes, schools and offices across much of the Pacific coast. The government said four million homes lost power, raising concerns about the fate of thousands of pensioners .

As pictures of the quake and tsunami sweeping away homes and farms beamed across the world, offers of help began to come in. Britain joined the US, South Korea and China in offering to send help and rescue teams if needed. Japan's government has already asked the US military in the country to open its airfields to commercial aircraft and lend troops to disaster areas.

Around Tokyo, millions of workers were stranded by the stalled transport system and prepared to stay for the night, some in temporary government shelters.

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