Friday, March 11, 2011

Magnitude 8.9 earthquake rocks Japan

Magnitude 8.9 earthquake rocks Japan

The quake strikes off the northeast coast, triggering a tsunami that sweeps away cars, boats and even buildings. In Tokyo, all trains are halted and black plumes of smoke rise over the skyline.

By Barbara Demick, David Pierson and Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times
2:02 AM PST, March 11, 2011
Reporting from Beijing and Tokyo

A massive earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan on Friday, setting off a devastating tsunami that swallowed swaths of coastal territory and fanned out across the Pacific Ocean, threatening everything in its path.

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake -- the world's fifth largest since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey -- struck at 2:46 p.m. local time, shaking buildings violently in Tokyo for several minutes and sending millions fleeing for higher ground.

Initial reports said eight people had died, though that number is expected to rise dramatically as more aftershocks and tsunami waves batter the region.

Japanese television showed aerial footage of an ominous 13-foot muddy wave washing across the northeastern coast near the epicenter, consuming farms and small rural communities.

Sendai, a city of 1 million in Miyagi prefecture, was struck by a wave 20 feet high and then another 33 feet high. Large ships in port were seen lying on their sides.

The city's airport was flooded and people could be seen on the roof of the terminal to avoid the waters. In other locations, live TV coverage showed massive damage from the waves with dozens of cars, boats and even buildings carried along by waters. A large ship swept away by the tsunami rammed into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture. Waves could be seen splashing into city streets and over bridges.

Further south in Chiba prefecture, firefighters battled an out-of-control oil refinery blaze that spewed fireballs into the sky.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in a press conference called for people to remain calm and reported that the nation's nuclear power plants showed no signs of damage. However, "The government will make its utmost efforts to secure people's safety and limit any damages to the minimum," Kan said.

All trains in Tokyo were stopped, and black plumes of smoke rose over the skyline. Office workers rushed out of their buildings. Subways were halted, trapping commuters underground. In the nation with the world's third largest economy, all airports were closed.

"The train was rocking sharply back and forth," said Anthony Weiss, a 29-year-old from Florida studying Japanese in Tokyo who was on a train when the quake hit. "People covered their heads with their bags as dust and small debris fell. Something sprung a leak, as there was a lot of water on the platform."

Many riders evacuated the train and headed for the archways, but not Weiss. "I stayed on because I was concerned about the roof and hanging lights and ventilation systems," he said. "Lights went on and off in the train. It felt a lot like the earthquake attraction at Universal, to be honest, but it wasn't stopping.

"It was pretty scary," Weiss said in an e-mail to a friend. "It felt pretty strong. People were scrambling for the doorways. The aftershocks are continuing even now."

"It felt like a jet had come too close to the window and everything started shaking and rocking, and there was a huge rumbling noise," said David Pierson, a 32-year-old U.S. Army helicopter pilot who was at Tokyo's Narita International Airport. "All the signs started swaying and fixtures started popping out. When I saw the panic on people's faces, I made a move for the exit."

The epicenter of the quake was 81 miles off the coast of Sendai, and it struck at a depth of 15 miles. The combination of how close it was to the coast and how shallow it was made it a "perfect storm for the tsunami generation," said Susan Hough of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena.

Japan has a lengthy history of large earthquakes, and its buildings are well-girded to withstand damage. Observers said this could help minimize the number of casualties.

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