JAPAN was today battling to come to terms with the devastation unleashed by one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history.
Hundreds of people were feared dead and many more are missing following the 8.9-magnitude quake, which triggered a vast tsunami.
The 30ft-high wave smashed into the city of Sendai on Japan’s east coast, sweeping boats, cars, buildings and tonnes of debris inland.
Television pictures showed motorists desperately trying to speed away from the onrushing wall of water.
Millions were left without power and a state of emergency was declared, with the military being mobilised to help with relief efforts.
People living near a nuclear plant were ordered to leave their homes after its cooling system failed.
Tsunami warnings were issued across a large swathe of the globe as savage waves rolled south-west from Japan. Concerns were voiced that they could wash right over some islands in their path.
Countries on alert included the Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji and New Zealand. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from vulnerable areas.
Paul Conneally, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross, said: “We have triggered all of our response mechanisms in the Pacific region.
“Our main concern now is to get people out of harm’s way.”
Experts said the ‘megaquake’ was 8,000 times more powerful than the one that rocked Christchurch in New Zealand last month.
It happened at 2.46pm local time (0546 GMT) and was followed by at least 12 powerful aftershocks.
The first tremor struck 80 miles off the east coast, causing tall buildings to shake violently 240 miles away in Tokyo.
A massive fire erupted at an oil refinery near the capital, with flames leaping 100ft into the sky.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in Tokyo at his office in a trading company when the quake hit, sending bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor while cracks appeared in walls.
“I’ve been through many earthquakes, but I’ve never felt anything like this,” said Mr Akiya.
A magnitude-9.0 quake near Sumatra in December 2004 triggered an Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed 230,000 lives in a dozen countries.
* The Foreign Office has set up a helpline on 0207 008 0000 for people in the UK concerned about the safety of friends and relatives in Japan.