Japan nuclear explosion 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NTV via Reuters TV)
TOKYO - A devastating tsunami triggered by the biggest earthquake on record in Japan killed at least 1,300 people along the northeastern coast on Friday after a wall of water swept away everything in its path, Japanese media reported. Though the official number released Friday was almost 300, estimates are that the number of deaths could be in the thousands.
Officials warned there could be a small radiation leak from a nuclear reactor whose cooling system was knocked by the earthquake, but thousands of residents in the area had been moved out of harm's way .
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Pressure building in the plant was set to be released soon, a move that could result in a radiation leak, officials said. Some 3,000 people who live within a 3 kilometer radius of the plant had been evacuated, Kyodo news agency said.
"It's possible that radioactive material in the reactor vessel could leak outside but the amount is expected to be small and the wind blowing towards the sea will be considered," Chief Cabinet Yukio Edano told a news conference.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry announced that it has not heard from 20 Israelis in Japan following the earthquake.
The ministry stressed that it may be difficult for the Israelis to contact their families because of the collapse of communications networks in Japan due to the quake.
Foreign Ministry officials have also issued a travel warning to Israelis residing in Japan and other countries in the Pacific to stay away from areas close to the shore and obey instructions from local authorities.
The unfolding disaster in the wake of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and 10-meter (33-feet) high tsunami prompted offers of help from dozens of countries.
Stunning TV footage showed a muddy torrent of water carrying cars and wrecked homes at high speed across farmland near the coastal city of Sendai, home to one million people and which lies 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Ships had been flung onto a harbour wharf, where they lay helplessly on their side.
Boats, cars and trucks were tossed around like toys in the water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. An overpass, location unknown, appeared to have collapsed and cars were turning around and speeding away.
Japanese politicians pushed for an emergency budget to fund relief efforts after Kan asked them to "save the country," Kyodo news agency reported. Japan is already the most heavily indebted major economy in the world, meaning any funding efforts would be closely scrutinised by financial markets.
Domestic media said the death toll was expected to reach the thousands, with most deaths by drowning.
The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.
Tsunami warnings were issued across the Pacific but were later lifted for some of the most populated countries in the region, including Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand.
Even in a nation accustomed to earthquakes, the devastation was shocking.
"A big area of Sendai city near the coast, is flooded. We are hearing that people who were evacuated are stranded," said Rie Sugimoto, a reporter for NHK television in Sendai.
"About 140 people, including children, were rushed to an elementary school and are on the rooftop but they are surrounded by water and have nowhere else to go."
Japan has prided itself on its speedy tsunami warning system, which has been upgraded several times since its inception in 1952, including after a 7.8 magnitude quake triggered a 30-metre high wave before a warning was given.
The country has also built countless breakwaters and floodgates to protect ports and coastal areas, although experts said they might not have been enough to prevent disasters such as what happened on Friday.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told people to stay in safe places as the cold deepened into the night. "Please help each other and act calmly," he told a news conference.
In Tokyo, residents who had earlier fled swaying buildings jammed the streets trying to make their way home after much of the city's public transportation was halted.
Many subways in Tokyo later resumed operation but trains did not run. People who decided not to walk home slept in office buildings.
"I was unable stay on my feet because of the violent shaking. The aftershocks gave us no reprieve. Then the tsunamis came when we tried to run for cover. It was the strongest quake I experienced," a woman with a baby on her back told television in northern Japan.
The quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping records 140 years ago, sparked at least 80 fires in cities and towns along the coast, Kyodo said.
Other Japanese nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down and one refinery was ablaze. Television footage showed an intense fire in the waterfront area near Sendai.