Japan struggles with scale of death

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Japan was overwhelmed today by the vast numbers of tsunami victims.

A tide of bodies washed up along the coastline, crematoriums were overflowing with the dead and rescue workers ran out of body bags as the nation faced the reality of its mounting humanitarian, economic and nuclear crisis.

Millions were facing a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures in the devastated north-east.

Meanwhile, a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity and the fuel rods at another were at least briefly fully exposed, raising fears of a meltdown.

The stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

Japanese police said 1,000 washed up bodies were found scattered today across the coastline of Miyagi prefecture.

The discovery raised the official death toll to about 2,800, but the Miyagi police chief has said that more than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone, which has a population of 2.3 million.

In one town in a neighbouring prefecture, the crematorium was unable to handle the crush of bodies being brought in for funerals.

"We have already begun cremations, but we can only handle 18 bodies a day. We are overwhelmed and are asking other cites to help us deal with bodies. We only have one crematorium in town," said Katsuhiko Abe.

In Japan most people opt to cremate their dead, a process that, like burial, requires permission first from local authorities. But the government took the rare step today of waiving the paperwork to speed up funerals.

A Health Ministry spokesman said: "The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity.

This is an emergency measure. We want to help quake-hit people as much as we can."

Friday's double tragedy has caused unimaginable deprivation. In many areas there is no running water, no power and four- to five-hour waits for petrol . People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls while dealing with the loss of loved ones and homes.

"People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming," said a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the three hardest hit.

He said authorities were receiving just 10% of the food and other supplies they need. Body bags and coffins were running so short that the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.

"We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don't have enough," he said.

"We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It's just overwhelming."

The coast has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks since Friday, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare today . As sirens wailed, soldiers abandoned their search operations and told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to higher ground.