TOKYO (Reuters) - Even in a nation accustomed to tremors, Friday’s massive earthquake in Japan, and the tsunami it triggered, were terrifyingly different.
Roiling water swept away homes, highways and the cars driving on them as waves 10 metres high hit the country’s northeastern Pacific coast after the magnitude 8.9 quake, the biggest in nearly a century and a half.
The tsunami, black with soil and thick with debris, some of it ablaze, submerged farmland near the coastal city of Sendai, and television images showed upended cars bobbing up and down in the water. Boats were floating in an inland sea.
The quake rattled skyscrapers in Tokyo further south, where the streets around the main train station were packed with commuters stranded after buses and trains were halted.
“It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago,” said Reuters journalist Linda Sieg.
“The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks,” she said.
Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater and on average, an earthquake occurs every 5 minutes.
But Friday’s quake, coming a few weeks after New Zealand’s city of Christchurch was devastated by a strong earthquake, was petrifying.
“I was terrified and I’m still frightened,” said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, manager of a Chinese noodle restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka area. “I’ve never experienced such a big quake before.”
“People were very frightened. Very rare since people in Japan are used to quakes. Today was very different,” Reuters Insider reporter Kei Okamura posted on Twitter.
Asagi Machida, a 27-year-old web designer in Tokyo, was walking near a coffee shop when the earthquake hit. “The images from the New Zealand earthquake are still fresh in my mind so I was really scared. I couldn’t believe such a big earthquake was happening in Tokyo.”
Kyodo news agency reported 14 fires had broken out in Tokyo after the quake, and a refinery in Chiba, just outside the capital, was also ablaze.
Hundreds of people spilt out onto the streets of Tokyo after the quake, with crowds gathering infront of televisions in shop windows for details on the quake. Some passengers on a subway line in Tokyo screamed and grabbed other passengers.
“I dashed out of my office. I sort of panicked and left behind my mobile phone and belongings,” said Aya Nakamura, an office worker in Tokyo.
“You see the crane on top of that tall building under construction? I thought it might fall off the building because all the buildings around me were shaking badly,” she said, standing with her colleague on the street.
At least 10 people have so far been killed in Japan, but the death toll is almost certain to rise.
The quake surpasses the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area. Seismologists had said another such quake could strike the city any time.
A 1995 quake in Kobe caused $100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. For Takeshi Okada, Friday’s quake was a chilling reminder of that disaster.
“I was so scared,” said the 36-year-old coffee shop manager in downtown Tokyo.
“I remember seeing what happened with the Kobe earthquake (in 1995) and thought, what if that happens to Tokyo? I’m kind of panicking. I don’t want to go outside because something might crash down on me.”
Writing by Miral Fahmy, editing by Jonathan Thatcher