After the earthquake, a tsunami of death and destruction in Japan

Hundreds dead and tens of thousands missing as surges sweep inland after tremors 'like the end of the world'

It was 2.46pm when the chandeliers began swinging wildly in Tokyo's parliament chamber. Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, stared in growing panic as the tremors intensified. Outside, buildings swayed like giant metronomes, roads cracked apart and people screamed and ran for shelter. The biggest earthquake in the country's history had struck.

In the minutes that followed, a series of 10-metre high tsunami waves peeled 80 miles across a calm Pacific ocean from the quake's epicentre to Japan's north east coast. Their symmetry belied a raging power that left behind a boiling back wash. Hundreds were last night confirmed dead and tens of thousands missing after the huge surges crashed ashore, rocking Japan as ships and trains went missing, cities and industrial plants blazed and a dam burst sweeping away homes.

It was all captured in horrifying detail as TV channels broadcast the most vivid footage yet of the devastating power of a tsunami which was by turns heart-breaking and bewildering.

The foaming white tsunami turned black on landfall as it bought death and destruction and crushed everything in its path. It churned up the earth, shredded buildings, trees and crops and tossed boats and cars around like corks. The sludge surged inland surrounding homes where survivors waved white sheets from top floor windows, desperate for help. The tide erased carefully tended fields and mowed down rows of poly-tunnel greenhouses.

Up to 300 bodies were found in the coastal city of Sendai which bore the brunt of the waves. Most were feared drowned. Cars were swept across the city's airport runway where people gathered on the terminal roof for safety, trapped by the water all around them. About 140 people, including children, were trapped on top of an elementary school.

"I was trying to get up to high ground," said one elderly man in a baseball cap in the city of Ofunato, 80 miles up the coast, which had no power after more than 300 houses were swept away. "People up there were saying hurry up, get up here. Once I got up we watched cars flow by."

"The aftershocks gave us no reprieve," added a woman with a baby strapped to her back. "Then the tsunami came when we tried to run for cover."

The port at Miyako offered no shelter either and boiled like a cauldron. Cars, trucks and even a large building were churned in the torrents that pounded the harbour wall, detonating like a string of explosive charges.

Off the coast, a giant whirlpool, hundreds of metres in diameter like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie, turned slowly with a leisure yacht caught in its vortex.

Commercial vessels were hammered into breakwaters and a ship carrying 100 people was swept away, according to Kyodo news agency. Footage showed a trawler ploughing head on into the on-rushing tsunami, pitching almost to vertical. In one town, ships, buildings and cars were tossed around together in an incongruous mix.

The images were reminiscent of the tsunami that struck Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004, but far more comprehensive and clearer from being professionally shot from helicopters. In one heart-rending piece of footage, a lone cyclist could be seen pedalling desperately away from the advancing morass of timber and sludge surging from behind him.

In another scene, a large fishing boat was forced by the water into a road bridge still being used by cars. The boat emerged the other side with its wheelhouse torn off. Cars and trucks were tossed around like toys after a smaller tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. An overpass appeared to have collapsed and vehicles turned around and speed away from the danger.

A train running north of Sendai on the Senseki line was reported missing with an unknown number of passengers on board. Then after the water came the fire. Swaths of Kesennuma, a hillside coastal town of 74,000 people in the hardest hit Miyagi prefecture, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of the flames being extinguished. A witness told the public broadcaster NHK it was sparked after the tsunami overturned several cars, causing them to leak oil and petrol. More than a dozen fires broke out across Tokyo where 4 million people were left without power.

At an oil refinery, infernos raged out of control and a huge orange explosion rose into the sky in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Another blast tore through a petrochemical complex in Miyagi prefecture.

Japan's infrastructure was collapsing fast. Roads were impassable, trains were cancelled and airports were closed for long periods, with international flights into Narita resuming last night. An irrigation dam reportedly burst in the north-east Fukushima prefecture and homes were washed away. But the greatest concern was for the safety of four nuclear reactors in the area.

The government declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency a heightened state of alert at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power, north of Tokyo, and some 3,000 residents evacuated the area. The Tokyo Electric Power Company said the cooling function at the nuclear plant had been knocked out, causing the pressure in the reactor to rise, but that there was no radioactive leakage.

"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," the prime minister told a news conference. He said the government needed to act to "save the country".

"We urge the people of Japan to be cautious and vigilant and listen to the news reports and we ask the people of Japan to act calmly," he said.

Standing on the Pacific "ring of fire" Japan is one of the best prepared countries in the world to cope with an earthquake, but tremors were more powerful and more prolonged than any that residents had ever experienced. The land felt like liquid.

Ritsuko Tachikawa, 34, a corporate consultant was sitting at a red traffic light in her car in Saitama, north of Tokyo, when the earthquake struck.

"It felt like we were in a large vessel," she told the Guardian. "It started getting worse and worse and we started kind of freaking out. The ground was shaking but like big and slow waves. We could barely stand up. The brick walls beside our cars were collapsing and it seemed safer to stay in cars. It felt like the end of the world today."

Last night, with the city's power down, her family gathered around a kerosene stove and drank green tea and ate porridge by candlelight while listening to the news on a radio.

A Tokyo resident posting on the New York Times website reported he and his fellow swimmers doing laps at the Izumi Garden Tower in the Roppongi district "were sloshed around like rubber duckies in a bathtub".

Another on the ninth floor of a residential tower in the Sumida area marvelled at the engineering of his earthquake-proofed building which "flexed and bounced like an airliner in turbulence". Rooftop lightning rods swayed like giant metronomes and after the tremors, a public address system broadcast a pre-recorded message, evidence of how Japan is one of the world's best-prepared countries for seismic shocks: "This is Sumida City. Just now, a large earthquake happened. Please be careful."

Passengers on a subway line in Tokyo screamed and grabbed other passengers' hands to remain standing.

Crowds gathered in front of televisions in a shop to find out what was happening. After the shaking from the first quake subsided, crowds pointed to construction cranes on an office building up the street. "They're still shaking", they cried. "Are they going to fall?"

Matt Alt, an American translator in west Tokyo, described the quake as "a sustained attack", and in Fukishima, in north-east Japan 150 miles from the epicentre, British citizen Ben Sabers told the BBC the quake got "bigger and bigger and bigger".

"It went on for five or 10 minutes and it was like 'when is it going to stop?'" he said. "After a couple of minutes being under the table you realised this is really serious."

Trains across the country were halted and by nightfall the roads in Tokyo were jammed with millions of commuters trying to get home, in spite of official advice for people to stay where they are in a safe place.

"The big problem is that all the businessmen and women who commute into town from outside can't get home," Rie Kiyasu, an illustrator living in the Nakano district of Tokyo told the Guardian.

"We are back at home now, and outside the streets are full of people just walking. They don't have anywhere to stay for the night."Other residents said noodle shops were packed with people who would normally eat at home, while long queues had formed behind every payphone and out of every convenience store.

"Unending salaryman hordes, in orderly lines, waiting for eight hours or more for cabs and buses that will never come," Adam Ismail, 32, an equities analyst said in an email to The Guardian. Hotels filled up and people slept in offices.

In downtown Tokyo, Tomoko Suzuki and her elderly mother stood at a crowded corner, unable to get to their 29th-floor condominium because the elevator wasn't working.

They unsuccessfully tried to hail a taxi to a relative's house and couldn't find a hotel room. "We are so cold," said Suzuki. "We really don't know what to do."

Tweeting the quake

A Canadian living in Japan, Blaise Plant, used an iPhone to tweet every tremor from stricken Sendai:

1507 My house is trashed! I'm ok! It was spooky … the biggest one yet!!

1648 I urge everyone to keep alert … things are falling all over the place.

1649 I currently can't go home the ground is still shaking and shaking

1716 A lot of people from the neighborhood gathered together to keep warm

1724 Still big shakes … the tsunami seems to have really done damage …

1828 The city is a complete black out! Can't see anything except car lights!!

1932 Thank god we live in a great, organized country where everyone is helping each other out!

2019: Time to save battery power...I'll check in with you guys later on!

2059 Currently here with friends still getting massive tremors … we are all a little worried right now …trying to stay calm.

2101 Some families with us, getting the kids to fall asleep …don't get me wrong … we're not all jumping and screaming but just staying calm.

2104: We are all seems to have calmed...we are in the city, at Body Plus, waiting for the power to kick back on2106 Another tremor hit …

2109 Phones are still dead … I'm trying to call my brother, no connection yet.

2113 Here it comes again

2129 We are all in high spirits … just trying to cheer each other up … friends are important.

2203 I know it's a little dangerous to be in a car throughout all this, but just needed a little charge for my iPhone.

2208 Non-stop tremors … a big one every 15 mins or so … every shake makes u wonder if it's the big one.

2216 Still pitch black, power is not back yet … walked outside … smell of propane.

2230 Really exhausted here. I can't say how many people are injured around this area here, but we are all safe. Pray.

2257 Big tremors.

2315 Oh no! I just heard 200-300 people died just 15 mins from where I am. … tsunami disaster. So sad. I often go there.

2330 Another big tremor … all is ok here.

2332 A lot of people around sleeping in their cars trying to keep warm. It's very cold out, no heat in the building. Enough blankets to stay warm.

2333 Sirens all over the place outside. Safe here.

2339 We are about 17 people here …kids, moms, dads, sipping hot tea. Keeping warm.

2344 Currently 1141pm still have all night to deal with this. They've been saying we were expecting the big one for years.never thought itdcome.

2359 Heavy tremors where I am, can't really rest. Anxiety at every breath. Staying strong.

0008 More tremors...

0014 Just came outside with my buddy Dave … making sure all is ok! Never seen the stars so bright.

0016 Fires all over the city.

0026 All ok here, no problems, no injuries, plenty of food, drinks, no electricity, small gas can, boilingwater. Keeping chins up with hesitant smiles.

0040 Small tremors every minute, it's a constant adrenaline rush, so exhausting.

0100 Currently 1am … tremors are getting smaller … every 30 mins or so we get a big boom. All good here, women and children are now sleeping well

0120 More tremors0056 We've had tremors all week, living in Sendai, we get them all the time, it's a jump every time, thinking to yourself … is this the one?

0127 I heard 88,000 people still missing in the whole country. So hard.


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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