Japanese media have reported at least 26 deaths and many injuries, with fires breaking out from Sendai city in northern Japan to Tokyo.
Two people have reportedly been killed by a collapsing ceiling at a Honda factory in Tochigi. There are major fires at an oil refinery and steel plant in Chiba, east of Tokyo. Dozens of storage tanks are under threat at the refinery.
Japanese television showed aerial footage of an ominous 13-foot muddy wave washing across land along the northeastern coast near the epicenter.
In various locations, live TV coverage showed massive damage from the tsunami, with dozens of cars, boats and even buildings being carried along by waters. A large ship swept away by the tsunami rammed into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture. Waves could be seen splashing into city streets and over bridges.
All trains in Tokyo were stopped, and black plumes of smoke rose over the skyline. Office workers rushed out of their buildings. Subways were halted, trapping commuters underground and in the nation with the world’s third-largest economy, all airports were closed.
“The train was rocking sharply back and forth,” said Anthony Weiss, a 29-year-old from Florida studying Japanese in Tokyo who was on a train when the quake hit. “People covered their heads with their bags as dust and small debris fell. Something sprung a leak, as there was a lot of water on the platform.”
Many riders evacuated the train and headed for the archways, but Weiss stayed on the train. “I stayed on because I was concerned about the roof and hanging lights and ventilation systems,” he said. “Lights went on and off in the train. It felt a lot like the earthquake attraction at Universal, to be honest, but it wasn’t stopping.”
“It was pretty scary,” Weiss said in an e-mail to a friend. “It felt pretty strong. People were scrambling for the doorways. The aftershocks are continuing even now.”
“It felt like a jet had come too close to the window and everything started shaking and rocking, and there was a huge rumbling noise,” said David Pierson, a 32-year-old U.S. Army helicopter pilot who was at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. “All the signs started swaying and fixtures started popping out. When I saw the panic on people’s faces, I made a move for the exit.”
The epicenter of the quake was 81 miles off the coast of Sendai, and it struck at a depth of 15 miles, which may have decreased the potential damage.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said a tsunami warning was in effect for Japan, Russia and the Northern Marianas. A tsunami watch has been issued for Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Hawaii.
Japan has a lengthy history of large earthquakes, and its buildings are well-girded to withstand damage. Observers said this could help minimize the number of casualties.
(Parts of this article were written with content submitted in a Los Angeles Times and a RTE News release)