Image: Buildings tossed together by the tsunami is seen in Miyagi Prefecture
Kyodo  /  Reuters
The tsunami that was spawned by the monster quake tossed buildings together in Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 3/12/2011 1:26:17 AM ET 2011-03-12T06:26:17

Key details:

  • 50,000 troops for the rescue and recovery efforts
  • Emergencies at nuclear reactors as cooling fails
  • 200 to 300 bodies found in one coastal city after tsunami
  • At least 90 fires in northeast Japan
  • More than 100 aftershocks

Japan launched a massive, military-led rescue operation Saturday after a giant quake and tsunami killed hundreds of people and turned the northeastern coast into a swampy wasteland as authorities braced for a possible meltdown at a nuclear reactor.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he is sending 50,000 troops for the rescue and recovery efforts following Friday's 8.9-magnitude quake that unleashed one of the greatest disasters Japan has witnessed — a 23-foot (7-meter) tsunami that washed far inland over fields, smashing towns, airports and highways in its way.

The official death toll stood at 413, while 784 people were missing and 1,128 injured. In addition, police said between 200 and 300 bodies were found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area near the quake's epicenter. An untold number of bodies were also believed to be lying in the rubble and debris. Rescue workers had yet to reach the hardest-hit areas.

"Unfortunately, we must be prepared for the number to rise greatly," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Saturday.

Japanese media quoted local officials as saying the death toll was expected to top 1,000 as authorities tried to reach the hardest-hit areas.

More than 215,000 people were living in 1,350 temporary shelters in five prefectures, or states, the national police agency said. Since the quake, more than 1 million households have not had water, mostly concentrated in northeast.

Kan said a total of 190 military planes and 25 ships have been sent to the area.

"Most of houses along the coastline were washed away, and fire broke out there," he said after inspecting the quake area in a helicopter. "I realized the extremely serious damage the tsunami caused."

Adding to the worries was the damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where two reactors had lost cooling ability.

Aerial scenes of the town of Ofunato showed homes and warehouses in ruins. Sludge and high water spread over acres of land, with people seeking refuge on roofs of partially submerged buildings. At one school, a large white "SOS" had been spelled out in English.

The earthquake that struck off the northeastern shore ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, scientists said.

Edano said an initial assessment found "enormous damage."

Police said 200-300 bodies were found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area. Authorities said they weren't able to reach the area because of damage to the roads.

For more than two terrifying, seemingly endless minutes Friday afternoon, the quake shook apart homes and buildings, cracked open highways and unnerved even those who have learned to live with swaying skyscrapers. Then came the devastating tsunami that washed far inland over fields and smashed towns.

The town of Rikuzentakada, population 24,700, in northern Iwate prefecture, looked largely submerged in muddy water, with hardly a trace of houses or buildings of any kind.

The entire Pacific had been put on alert — including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska — but waves there were not as bad as expected.

Residents in Miyagi prefecture, who spent the night on top of a building, were rescued Saturday morning, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.

"I was unable stay on my feet because of the violent shaking," a woman with a baby on her back told television in northern Japan. "The aftershocks gave us no reprieve, then the tsunami came when we tried to run for cover."

In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried under rubble could be heard calling out "Help" and "When are we going to be rescued?", the Kyodo news agency reported hours after the quake and tsunami. Rescuers were having a hard time reaching areas due to destroyed roads.

TV footage showed fires engulfing a large waterfront area in northeastern Japan. Houses and other buildings caught fire across large swathes of land in Kesennuma, near Sendai.

Kyodo reported that contact was lost with four trains along the northeast coast.

In one town alone on the northeastern coast, Minami-soma, some 1,800 houses were destroyed or badly ravaged, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said.

A second, magnitude 6.6 quake struck central Japan along the northwest coast around 4 a.m. local time on Saturday, causing buildings to sway.

Interactive: Japan earthquake aftershocks (on this page)

Nuclear emergencies
Japan declared states of emergency for five nuclear reactors at two power plants near Onahama after the units lost cooling ability when the power went out.

The government ordered residents near one of the plants to evacuate because reactor cooling systems failed and pressure inside was rising.

The Defense Ministry dispatched dozens of troops trained to deal with chemical disaster to the plant in case of a radiation leak.

An American working at the plant said the whole building shook and debris fell from the ceiling when the quake hit. Danny Eudy and his colleagues escaped the building just as the tsunami hit, his wife told The Associated Press.

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"He walked through so much glass that his feet were cut. It slowed him down," said Janie Eudy, who spoke to her husband by phone after the quake.

The group watched homes and vehicles be carried away in the wave and found their hotel mostly swept away when they finally reached it.

A second, nearby nuclear plant also reported cooling trouble.

Video: Emergency declared at nuclear plant (on this page)

Overall, dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by the quake and dozens of aftershocks that reached as far away as Tokyo.

"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Kan said at a news conference.

Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.

Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into cities, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.

Homes were washed away in the city of Sukagawa when an irrigation dam broke.

A ship with about 80 dock workers was swept away from a shipyard. All on the ship were believed to be safe , although the vessel had sprung a leak and was taking on some water, Japan's coast guard said.

The highways to the worst-hit coastal areas were severely damaged and communications, including telephone lines, were snapped.

Train services in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were also suspended. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.

Map: Quake details, historic comparisons (on this page)

In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 1,093-foot steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Tens of thousands of people remained stranded in Tokyo as night fell and temperatures hovered just above freezing. The streets were jammed with cars, buses and trucks trying to get out.

Mobile phone lines were crammed, preventing nearly all calls and text messages. Unable to rely on their mobile phones, people formed lines at Tokyo's normally vacant public phone booths dotting the city.

The city set up 33 shelters in city hall, on university campuses and in government offices, but many planned to spend the night at 24-hour cafes, hotels and offices.

Austrian Lukas Schlatter saw houses and cars moving when the quake struck, and it was even hard for him to stand, “like I was a little bit drunk.”

Schlatter, a 22-year-old intern at the Austrian embassy in Tokyo, said there was a lot of shaking and books fell off shelves.“My Japanese co-workers were also scared because they said they had not experienced that strong of an earthquake in a long time,” he told msnbc.com.

More than 4 million customers at one point lost power in Tokyo and its suburbs, the NHK news agency said.

Around Sendai, waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways.

The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.

A large fire erupted at an oil refinery in Ichihara city and burned out of control with 100-foot-high flames whipping into the sky.

Seventh strongest quake on record
The U.S. Geological Survey said the first quake hit at 2:46 p.m. local time on Friday and was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s.

USGS files show it was also the fifth strongest worldwide since 1900 and the seventh strongest on record.

The quake struck at a depth of six miles, about 80 miles off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Japan's worst previous quake was in 1923 in Kanto, an 8.3-magnitude temblor that killed 143,000 people. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe city in 1995 killed 6,400 people.

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 90-foot 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 the one that struck on Friday.

Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. A magnitude-8.8 temblor that shook central Chile last February also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Northern Japan engulfed in destruction

  1. Closed captioning of: Northern Japan engulfed in destruction

    >>> good evening. the nation of japan has suffered a clausal historic earthquake that has caused massive damage , massive loss of life and sent ocean waters racing over land. the earthquake was 8.9 and struck at 2:46 p.m ., centered 78 miles offshore. while tokyo swayed and shook and bounced for minutes on end, sending millions to shelter, sendai was the closest population center and it's been devastated. the loss of life officially so far in the hundreds will almost certainly be in the thousands as thousands are missing. the quake then triggered a tsunami, water upwards of 30 feet high that swamped the japanese shoreline, moving faster than people or cars could outrun it. then it headed out east across the pacific ocean , traveling at times at the speed of a jet airliner . the original quake was big enough to move the largest island of japan eight feet further to the east. the aftershocks haven't stopped. a second big quake struck on land late today u.s. time. the veteran cnbc tokyo bureau chief begins our coverage tonight. good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. japan is waking up to a morning saturday here like no other. the citizens of this country have long been accustomed to earthquakes, but what they saw 18 hours ago as this massive earthquake struck was like nothing they have seen before. the quake hit at 2:46 in the afternoon tokyo time, in the middle of what witnesses called a beautiful, calm day. terrified business workers scrambled to safety when the tremors hit. debris and office equipment falling everywhere. in the streets, chaos, as residents tried to dodge bricks and glass crashing to the ground. japan is no stranger to earthquakes. with reinforced building designs like nowhere else in the world, but this one was a monster, measuring a magnitude of 8.9, one of the strongest in the country's history. an american university professor in tokyo on business told us the tremors were relentless.

    >> the shaking got worse and worse. i don't know exactly how long it lasted. it seemed like it went on forever.

    >> reporter: the country's prime minister immediately activated an emergency response plan. after the shaking came the warning, and the wave, a chilling preview of the disaster to come. the target, the city of sendai , some 200 miles northeast of tokyo . hundreds are reported missing there. an unbelievable sight, the force of the swirling water sucking boats into its center. reports of at least one vessel missing with 100 people aboard. the tsunami hit with incredible force. the sludge sweeping away everything in its path. this wall of water and mud, some 30 feet high, washed across the low-lying coastal areas. entire towns swept away . thick and brown, strewn with debris. fast-moving, farmlands quickly disappeared. entire major roads, bridges and homes, gone in a matter of minutes. [ speaking foreign language ]

    >> the airport at sendai was completely destroyed. workers and others scrambled onto rooftops trying to stay above the mud. a huge fire at an oil refinery near tokyo continues to burn. at least 80 other massive fires are still burning along the coastline after the quake cut off gas lines, causing a series of explosions, leaving homes and businesses ablaze. power is out throughout parts of the country, and mass transit is down. in some places trains derailed. tonight, evacuations are under way for miles around this nuclear power plant in fukushima. officials say the cooling system failed during the jolt. authorities now say that radiation levels have surged outside the plant. with daybreak here, the search for dead and injured of this disaster is just beginning. not to mention the cleanup which will likely take months, if not years. although most of the public transportation here in the capital, tokyo , has resumed this morning, transportation communication to the northeast region has been sporadic. public broadcaster nhk reporting at least more than a thousand people have been either dead or missing, and the toll continues to mount. brian.

    >> and again what is an otherwise beautiful saturday morning across

Map: Japan earthquake

Explainer: A dozen killer earthquakes

  • USGS

    Thousands of earthquakes happen every day around the world. Most are hardly felt, if at all. But sometimes pieces of Earth's crust suddenly slip past each other in a massive release of pent-up stress. The jolted Earth rumbles, buildings collapse, streets buckle, and thousands of people die. These movements are nature's most violent act and take a grim toll on human life and infrastructure.

    The deadliest earthquake in recorded history rattled the Shensi province of China on Jan. 23, 1556, and killed an estimated 830,000 people. The death toll was particularly high among peasants who lived in artificial caves that were dug into soft rock and collapsed during the quake. This picture shows a pagoda whose peaked top was lost in the shaking. Earthquake damage is also visible on the corners. Click on the "Next" label to learn about 11 more deadly quakes.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • 1906: The Great Quake

    USGS

    The California earthquake of April 18, 1906, ranks as the most deadly in U.S. history: About 3,000 people perished. The Great Quake, as the event is known, was estimated at magnitude 7.9 and ruptured along 296 miles of the northernmost section of the San Andreas fault. Broken gas lines, fractured chimneys and toppled chemical trucks sparked a series of fires that torched large sections of San Francisco, as seen in this image taken from Golden Gate Park.

  • 1964: Good Friday?

    USGS

    The most powerful earthquake in North American history shook the state of Alaska on March 27, 1964, the Friday before Easter. The magnitude-9.2 temblor triggered a tsunami that was responsible for 113 of the 128 deaths associated with the earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The giant waves struck along the West Coast down to California, and rolled across the Pacific to Hawaii. This image shows the coastal town of Seward, Alaska, in the wake of the tsunami.

  • 1970: Mountains moved

    USGS

    The magnitude-7.9 earthquake that struck just off the west coast of Peru on May 31, 1970, reduced the coastal towns of Casma and Chimbote to rubble and killed at least 3,000 people. Even greater disaster struck the towns of Yungay and Ranranhirca. The shaking sent an avalanche of mud, rock and ice down the slopes of the Cordillera Blanca and buried the cities under tens of feet of debris. An estimated 70,000 lives were lost. Here, a statue of Christ is all that remains in Yungay.

  • 1976: Chinese region flattened

    USGS

    The deadliest earthquake in modern times flattened the industrial city of Tangshan, China, in the early morning of July 28, 1976. The Chinese government put the death toll at 255,000, though many geologists believe it was much higher — up to 655,000. Nearly 800,000 more were injured. Tremors and damage from the magnitude-7.5 quake extended as far as Beijing, about 90 miles from the epicenter. Here, a few tents and temporary shelters are visible amid the debris.

  • 1985: Mexico shaken

    USGS

    On Sept. 19, 1985, a magnitude-8.2 earthquake off Mexico's Pacific coast wreaked the greatest havoc in Mexico City, about 220 miles from the epicenter. There, hundreds of buildings were toppled, and thousands of people died. Government officials put the death toll at about 9,000, though other sources say it may have been as high as 35,000. A triggered tsunami sent waves rising almost 10 feet crashing into the coastal towns of Lazaro Cardenas, Zihuatanejo and Manzanillo. Here, a 21-story steel-constructed building in Mexico City lies in ruins.

  • 1995: Tremors hit Japan

    Roger Hutchison via NGDC/NOAA

    More than 6,400 people died in the aftermath of a magnitude-6.8 earthquake that hit Japan on Jan. 17, 1995. Most of those deaths occurred in Kobe, the city closest to the epicenter. Many buildings suffered partial collapse, such as the one shown in this picture. Total damage was estimated at more than $100 billion.

  • 2003: Iranian city crumbles

    Majid  /  Getty Images

    On Dec. 26, 2003, a magnitude-6.6 earthquake crumpled the adobe city of Bam, Iran, killing an estimated 30,000 people. About 60 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed and nearly all the rest were damaged. The event ranks as the deadliest in Iran's history. Here, one of the victims is carried to the grave.

  • 2004: The Asian tsunami

    Dita Alangkara  /  AP file

    On Dec. 26, 2004, a magnitude-9.1 earthquake ruptured the ocean floor off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and triggered a series of destructive tsunamis that killed at least 225,000 people in 11 countries. Millions more were stripped of their homes. Scientists estimate the energy released in the event was more than 1,500 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Here, villagers walk through a devastated area of Pangdandaran on the Indonesian island of Java.

  • 2005: Landslides in Kashmir

    David Guttenfelder  /  AP file

    At least 86,000 people were killed when a magnitude-7.6 earthquake hit the Kashmir region of northern Pakistan on Oct. 8, 2005. Millions more were left homeless at the outset of the harsh Himalayan winter. Landslides swept away villages and blocked roads for relief and rescue workers, worsening the human toll. At least 1,350 people were killed in neighboring India, and the shaking was also felt in Afghanistan. Here, rescue workers dig through the rubble looking for survivors at a school in Balakot, Pakistan.

  • 2008: Catastrophe in China

    Image: Searching rubble
    Xinhua via AFP - Getty Images

    An estimated 70,000 people died and millions were left homeless when a magnitude-7.9 earthquake hit a region north of Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, on May 12, 2008. Tremors were felt as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. One of the most tragic episodes was the collapse of a high school in Juyuan. This picture shows searchers digging through the school's rubble.

  • 2010: Huge setback for Haiti

    Image: Rescue in Haiti
    Radio Tele Ginen via AP

    Extreme poverty and extremely poor construction standards contributed to the devastation and death in Haiti when a magnitude-7.0 quake hit Port-au-Prince and its surroundings on Jan. 12, 2010. The death toll amounted to more than 230,000, and aid officials say it will take years for Haiti to recover fully ... if it ever can. This picture shows rescuers carrying one of the injured away from the rubble.

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