Japan's largest ever quake, tsunami kill hundreds

Thousands evacuated near nuclear plant; Foreign Ministry says 25 Israelis missing, issues travel warning; 4.4m. without power; 300 bodies reportedly found in coastal city of Sendai; fires ravage homes, structures.

Japan earthquake tsunami flood  fire 58 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/KYODO)
Japan earthquake tsunami flood fire 58 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/KYODO)
The biggest earthquake on record to hit Japan rocked its northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-metre tsunami that killed hundreds of people and swept away everything in its path.    
Thousands of residents near a nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture, north of Tokyo, were told to evacuate as a precaution after the 8.9 magnitude quake, but the government said no radiation was leaking.    
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Up to 300 bodies were found in the coastal city of Sendai, media said. NHK television said the victims appeared to have drowned. The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.    
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry announced that it has not heard from 25 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.
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.    
Other Japanese nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down and one refinery was ablaze.
The United States transported coolant to a Japanese nuclear plant affected by the earthquake and will continue to assist Japan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.
"We just had our Air Force assets in Japan transport some really important coolant to one of the nuclear plants," Clinton said at a meeting of the President's Export Council.
"You know Japan is very reliant on nuclear power and they have very high engineering standards but one of their plants came under a lot of stress with the earthquake and didn't have enough coolant," Clinton said.
A major explosion hit a petrochemical complex in Miyagi prefecture after the quake, Kyodo said.
Political leaders pushed for an emergency budget to help fund relief efforts after Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked them to "save the country", Kyodo news agency reported.
Stunning TV footage showed a muddy torrent of water carrying cars and wrecked homes at high speed across farmland near Sendai, home to one million people and which lies 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Ships had been flung onto a harbor wharf, where they lay helplessly on their side.    
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 news agency said.
A ship carrying 100 people had been swept away by the tsunami, Kyodo said. One train was derailed and another unaccounted for.    
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.   
"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.
The tsunami alerts revived memories of the giant waves which struck Asia in 2004. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued alerts for countries to the west and across the Pacific as far away as Colombia and Peru.     
The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century.    
There were several strong aftershocks. In Tokyo, there was widespread panic. An oil refinery near the city was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.    
Around 4.4 million homes were without power in northern Japan, media said.    
"People are flooding the streets. It's incredible. Everyone is trying to get home but I didn't see any taxis," said Koji Goto, a 43-year-old Tokyo resident.    
NHK television showed flames and black smoke billowing from a building in Odaiba, a Tokyo suburb, and bullet trains to the north of the country were halted. Thick smoke was also pouring out of an industrial area in Yokohama's Isogo area. TV showed residents of the city running out of shaking buildings, shielding their heads with their hands from falling masonry.     
The US navy said its ships had been unaffected by the tsunami and were ready to provide disaster relief if needed.
US President Barack Obama spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to offer to help "in any way possible", the Japanese Jiji agency reported.
In a statement, Obama said: "The United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial ... The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakeable, and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy."