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Buildings burn following an earthquake in Yamada town, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, March 11, 2011. (YOMIURI/YOMIURI/REUTERS)
Buildings burn following an earthquake in Yamada town, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, March 11, 2011. (YOMIURI/YOMIURI/REUTERS)

Japan rocked by powerful earthquake and tsunami Add to ...

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 and the Coast Guard was searching for one man who was swept away while taking photographs of the waves. 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.

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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 epicentre. But authorities said they weren't able to reach the area because of damage to the roads.

Authorities said hundreds of people were killed across Japan and the toll was expected to surpass 1,000.

A police official, who declined to be named because of department policy, said it may be a while before rescuers could reach the area to get more precise body count. So far, they have confirmed 178 were killed, with 584 missing. Police also said 947 people were injured.

The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 7-meter tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0. In the early hours of Saturday, a magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck the central, mountainous part of the country — far from the original quake's epicentre. It was not immediately clear if this latest quake was related to the others.

Scientists say the massive earthquake ranks as the fifth largest jolt in the world since 1900, shaking after the initial shock lasted for about five minutes. It 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.

The so-called "megathrust" quake is similar to what happened during the 2004 Sumatra quake and the one last year in Chile. In all these cases, one tectonic plate is shoved beneath another. Such earthquakes are responsible for the most powerful shifts in the Earth's crust.

It shook dozens of cities and villages along a 2,100-kilometre stretch of coast, including Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres 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 later 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.”

Japan declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, where pressure has risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal. To reduce the pressure, slightly radioactive vapour may be released.

The agency said the radioactive element in the vapour would not affect the environment or human health.

Japan's nuclear safety agency issued an evacuation order to more than 2,800 people near the plant. The reactor core remains hot and requires cooling after a shutdown. Several nuclear plants elsewhere along the coast were also partially shut down, with no reports of leakage.

In the United States, the Coast Guard is searching for a man swept out to sea in northern California while taking pictures of tsunami waves.

Nearby, authorities in Brookings, Ore., say four people have survived after a tsunami surge swept them off a beach in Curry County and into the sea. The Curry County sheriff's department says two were able to get out of the water on their own, and two were rescued by law enforcement and fire officials.

Even for Japan, 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 kilometres inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.

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