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From beneath the sea, a wave of destruction

An elderly person is rescued by helicopter from the roof of an elementary school after an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northeastern Japan March 12, 2011


As dawn broke on a chilly Saturday over Japan's northeast coast, buildings lay ruined, streets remained flooded and fires raged, the consequence of the largest recorded earthquake in the country's history and a 10-metre tsunami that slammed into the area the previous day.

Workers scrambled to prevent the meltdowns of five nuclear reactors at two plants whose cooling systems had been knocked out by the tremor. At one reactor, internal radiation levels were 1,000 times greater than normal and crews released radioactive steam to ease the pressure inside. Nearly 14,000 people were evacuated from the area, about 250 kilometres northeast of Tokyo.

Hundreds of thousands of people were staying in emergency shelters, thousands more were stranded on rooftops and upper floors of buildings surrounded by dirty water, sludge and piles of debris.

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More than 1,000 people were believed dead, the Kyodo news service reported, with as many as 10,000 missing. There were reports an entire passenger train had gone missing and a ferry carrying 80 people had been lost.

Hundreds of soldiers, planes and ships marshalled at the scene to take part in rescue efforts. Early in the morning, 80 dock workers were rescued from a ship that had been swept out to sea and was taking on water. Television images showed helicopters picking up people from the roofs of buildings surrounded by dirty water, sludge and debris.

At a school in the coastal town of Ofunato, a white "SOS" message was visible in English.

Infrastructure was hobbled, leaving millions stranded and others without electricity. Sendai Airport was washed over by fast-running water that filled the empty tarmac as though it were a swimming pool. Much of the country's train system was shut down, as was the Tokyo Metro. Most international flights to and from the capital, as well as 700 domestic flights, were cancelled. Roads to the disaster zone were washed out.

Aftershocks, including one that stirred the waters off the country's northwest coast, continued to shake the ground.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who flew to the devastated area, said the country was ready to accept foreign aid.

The 8.9-magnitude quake, which struck just off the country's main island of Honshu, sent waves rolling at hundreds of kilometres an hour across the Pacific Ocean, but their force had largely subsided by the time they reached North America.

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Mark MacKinnon on Twitter

Docks were torn apart in the harbours of some towns on the California and Oregon coasts, and one 25-year-old man was swept into the ocean while standing on a sandbar trying to take photos of the incoming wave. Residents of Haida Gwaii and low-lying areas of Vancouver Island were evacuated to higher ground, but returned home late Friday.

None of the damage compared to the scene in Japan Friday, where a wall of black water crashed through the city of Sendai, a port of one million, picking up people, vehicles and multi-storey homes. Large boats were carried ashore, scraping under bridges and bumping off cars and trucks.

Ships were smashed around at sea and hundreds of cars swept out of a parking lot.

The black tide swept inland, crushing houses and farms. As the water receded, it deposited corpses and debris, and carried entire buildings out to sea.

Fires burnt overnight, sending flames shooting up over a Cosmo Oil Company refinery east of Tokyo.

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The shock of the original quake was strong enough to be felt hundreds of kilometres away, in downtown Tokyo, where it bent the top of the iconic Tokyo Tower, 333-metre steel spire modelled on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Mobile phone networks were knocked out. Survivors continued to communicate via the Internet, flooding social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to tell friends and family they were safe.

"It was horrible and awe-inspiring all at once. [We're]still getting aftershocks every five to 10 minutes. Before today, I would've been panicking at these," said Matthew Snell, a 37-year-old Canadian writer and editor living in Tokyo. "Every light in the neighbourhood [is]still on. So it looks like I'm not the only one nervous about going to bed tonight. I'm fully clothed and sitting next to my front door."

Koto Fujikawa, a 28-year-old Tokyo marketing employee, told the Associated Press she was riding an elevated train when the quake hit.

"I thought I was doing to die. It felt like the whole structure was collapsing," she said, adding that she later had to climb along the narrow guideways to reach safety at the next station.

There was evidence Japan had learned from the 1995 earthquake that struck the southern city of Kobe and left 6,500 people dead.

In the wake of that tremor, the country implemented some of the most stringent building standards in the world for taller structures.

In 2007, the Japan Meteorological Agency launched a warning system to broadcast alerts over state television and deliver text messages to mobile phones. A warning was issued roughly a minute before the initial quake struck Friday, and advance notice was given before many aftershocks.

The initial quake shifted the Earth's axis by 10 centimetres, the Italian Institute of Geology and Vulcanology said.

With reports from Agence France Presse and The Associated Press

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