- Associated Press - Friday, March 11, 2011

TOKYO (AP) — A ferocious tsunami unleashed by Japan’s biggest recorded earthquake slammed into its eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control.

Hours later, the waves washed ashore on Hawaii and the U.S. West coast, where evacuations were ordered from California to Washington but little damage was reported. The entire Pacific had been put on alert — including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska — but waves were not as bad as expected.

In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor’s cooling system failed and pressure began building inside.

Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the city in Miyagi prefecture, or state, closest to the epicenter. Another 178 were confirmed killed, with 584 missing. Police also said 947 people were injured.

The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake triggered a 23-foot (seven-meter) tsunami and was followed for hours by more than 50 aftershocks, many of them more than magnitude 6.0. In the early hours of Saturday, a magnitude-6.6 earthquake struck the central, mountainous part of the country — far from the original quake’s epicenter. It was not immediately clear if this latest quake was related to the others

In this image made off Japan's NHK TV video footage, vehicles are washed away by a tsunami in the coastal area of eastern Japan after the country was struck Friday by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake off its northeastern coast. (Associated Press/NHK TV)
In this image made off Japan’s NHK TV video footage, vehicles are ... more >

Friday’s massive quake shook dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) stretch of coast, including Tokyo, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the epicenter. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.

Koto Fujikawa, 28, was riding a monorail when the quake hit and had to pick her way along narrow, elevated tracks to the nearest station.

“I thought I was going to die,” Fujikawa, who works for a marketing company, said. “It felt like the whole structure was collapsing.”

Scientists said the quake 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.

“The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month’s worth of energy consumption” in the United States, U.S. Geological Survey Scientist Brian Atwater told The Associated Press.

President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially “catastrophic” disaster. He said one U.S. aircraft carrier is already in Japan, and a second is on its way. A U.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed, he added.

An American man working at one of the nuclear plants near the coast when the quake hit said the whole building shook and debris fell from the ceiling. Danny Eudy, 52, a technician employed by Pasedena, Texas-based Atlantic Plant Maintenance, and his colleagues escaped the building just as the tsunami hit, his wife told The Associated Press.

“He walked through so much glass that his feet were cut. It slowed him down,” said Pineville, Louisiana, resident 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.

The government later ordered about 3,000 residents near that plant — in the city of Onahama — to move back at least two miles (three kilometers) from the plant. 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.

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