Malcolm Foster (AP)
TOKYO – A ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it swept away boats, cars and homes while widespread fires burned out of control.
Hours later, the tsunami hit Hawaii and warnings blanketed the Pacific, as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast.
Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai. Another 88 were confirmed killed and at least 349 were missing. The death toll was likely to continue climbing given the scale of the disaster.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 23-foot (7-meter) tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0.
Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the epicenter.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in Onahama city to evacuate because the plant's system was unable to cool the reactor. The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after a shutdown. The plant is 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.
Trouble was reported at two other nuclear plants as well, but there was no radiation leak at any.
Japan's coast guard said it was searching for 80 dock workers working on a ship that was swept away from a shipyard in Miyagi prefecture.
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 (kilometers) inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images of surging water broadcast by Japanese TV networks resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the 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.
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, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
Jesse Johnson, a native of the U.S. state of Nevada, who lives in Chiba, north of Tokyo, was eating at a sushi restaurant with his wife when the quake hit.
"At first it didn't feel unusual, but then it went on and on. So I got myself and my wife under the table," he told The Associated Press. "I've lived in Japan for 10 years and I've never felt anything like this before. The aftershocks keep coming. It's gotten to the point where I don't know whether it's me shaking or an earthquake."
Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport, north of Tokyo, was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways. Fires spread through a section of the city, public broadcaster NHK reported.
More than 300 houses were washed away in Ofunato City alone. Television footage showed mangled debris, uprooted trees, upturned cars and shattered timber littering streets.
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.
"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."
He said the Defense Ministry was sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture and burned out of control with 100-foot (30 meter) -high flames whipping into the sky.
From northeastern Japan's Miyagi prefecture, NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city.
NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
Also in Miyagi, a fire broke out in a turbine building of a nuclear power plant, but it was later extinguished, said Tohoku Electric Power Co. the company said.
A reactor area of a nearby plant was leaking water, the company said. But it was unclear if the leak was caused by tsunami water or something else. There were no reports of radioactive leaks at any of Japan's nuclear plants.
Jefferies International Limited, a global investment banking group, said it estimated overall losses to be about $10 billion.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about 80 miles (125 kilometers) off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities ordered an evacuation of coastal communities, but no unusual waves were reported.
Thousands of people fled their homes in Indonesia after officials warned of a tsunami up to 6 feet (2 meters) high. But waves of only 4 inches (10 centimeters) were measured. No big waves came to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, either.
The first waves hit Hawaii about 1400 GMT (9 a.m. EST) Friday. A tsunami at least 3 feet (a meter) high were recorded on Oahu and Kauai, and officials warned that the waves would continue and could become larger.
In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 1,093-foot (333-meter) steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in Tokyo at his office in a trading company when the quake hit.
It sent bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor, and cracks appeared in the walls.
"I've been through many earthquakes, but I've never felt anything like this," he said. "I don't know if we'll be able to get home tonight."
Footage on NHK from their Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks. It also showed a glass shelter at a bus stop in Tokyo completely smashed by the quake and a weeping woman nearby being comforted by another woman.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday that caused no damage.
Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the destruction.
"We don't even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things," he said.
Dozens of fires were reported in northern prefectures of Fukushima, Sendai, Iwate and Ibaraki. Collapsed homes and landslides were also reported in Miyagi.
Japan's worst previous quake was in 1923 in Kanto, an 8.3-magnitude temblor that killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe city in 1996 killed 6,400 people.
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.
Associated Press writers Jay Alabaster, Mari Yamaguchi, Tomoko A. Hosaka and Yuri Kageyama contributed to this report.