Out of Japan: The night the mountain of water rose from the sea

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Last Monday's earthquake in northern Japan, was the worst to hit Japan since 1948. The tidal wave it caused towered 100 feet (30 metres) in places. Some 260 people are confirmed dead or missing, assumed dead. Most of these lived on the small island of Okushiri, off the north-west coast of Japan. Scientists, rescue workers and survivors have pieced together what happened that night after the earthquake shook the seabed 40 miles off the coast - and the story is terrifying.

The quake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, happened at 10.15pm. It was dark and most people in Okushiri had gone to bed. The population of 4,700 lives from fishing and tourism: there is little to do after sunset. The force of the quake bounced the island up and down, causing buildings to buckle. In Aonae town, south of Okushiri, where the worst damage occurred, the side of a hill collapsed, burying a hotel with 40 people inside.

'I was thrown up in the air from where I was sitting by the earthquake,' said a young man from Aonae in an interview the next day on Japanese television. 'Soon afterwards the electricity was cut, so a lot of people fled from their houses. Some minutes later the tsunami (tidal wave) hit.'

A 70-year-old woman, who had lived through a number of earthquakes, said: 'There was violent shaking, and the dish cabinet fell over. The room was a disaster. I heard the kind of boom that precedes a tsunami, so I fled my house.'

The eerie booming sound of the approaching tsunami was heard by others. Masahira Watanabe, the head teacher at Aonae school, had a house on a hillside some distance from the seashore. When he heard the booming he looked out and saw the tsunami 'like a mountain suddenly rising from the sea in the dark'. It was to be this huge wave, and not the quake, which caused the most death and destruction.

Back in Tokyo the earthquake monitoring centre in the Meteorological Agency had picked up the shock waves, located the epicentre under the sea, and immediately the decision to issue a tsunami warning was taken. Within five minutes of the quake the national television network, NHK, was warning people all along the north-west coast of Japan that a tsunami of 'up to three metres' could hit soon.

But the warnings were too late for the residents of Okushiri, and the experts had underestimated the size of the wave. Okushiri was the closest land to the epicentre of the quake, and was hit by the tsunami before the warning even went out. And from the evidence - like seaweed on the top of telephone poles - scientists have estimated that in some places the wave was 30 metres high. That meant a wall of seawater the height of a 10-storey building crashing onto the coast in the dark. Dozens of people were swept out to sea, others were crushed by the weight of water and debris.

One television crew found a woman the next day standing aimlessly in the rubble. 'This is my entrance hall,' she said sardonically, pointing to a pile of splintered wood and plaster. After the earthquake she rushed outside, she said, 'but the water was already up to my knees. Then the tsunami hit. I just stretched out with my hands above my head, and it washed me right up to the hill behind here'.

Some were lucky - a man whose son was swept out to sea by the wave rushed down to the shore afterwards and heard his son calling from the water. He dived in, found his son but the two were swept further out to sea. They survived by holding on to a wooden door until a rescue boat found them the next morning.

But others were not so lucky. One woman, her face blackened from the fire, wandered along the shore in a state of distraction. 'My child is missing,' she wailed. 'My child is gone in the wave.'

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