An aerial view shows debris that remained on the ground after a tsunami wave to have hit Hitachinaka city in Ibaraki prefecture on March 11, 2011.
A magnitude 8.9 quake slammed Japan's northeastern coast Friday, unleashing an enormous wall of dark water that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland. Authorities said at least 60 people were killed. The quake rattled a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline.
A 30-foot tsunami triggered by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded smashed into Japan's eastern coast Thursday, killing at least 60 people as it swept away boats, cars and homes while widespread fires raged.
Tsunami warnings blanketed the entire Pacific, as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast.
The magnitude 8.9 offshore quake was followed by at least 20 aftershocks, most of them of more than magnitude 6. Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
Police said at least 60 people were killed and 56 were missing. The death toll was likely to continue climbing given the scale of the disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Japan had closed four nuclear power plants as a precaution after reports of damage at two facilities. Japanese media reported that the cooling system of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture had failed. An official government spokesman said there had been no radioactive leakage, but officials later urged about 3,000 people living near the plant to evacuate.
In northeastern Japan's Miyagi prefecture, the turbine building of another nuclear power plant caught fire.
Also in Miyagi, public broadcaster NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city.
The quake struck at a depth of 6 miles, about 80 miles off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles northeast of Tokyo.
TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in Tokyo's Odaiba district. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 1,093-foot steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety, but there were few reports so far of collapsed buildings — a sign that stringent building codes may have averted a far greater disaster.
Tokyo airports closed and all public transportation was shut down, leaving people stranded on the streets. TV announcers urged workers not to leave their offices to prevent injuries in case of more strong aftershocks.
NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in the city and its suburbs.
"Normally, we're used to buildings shaking, but this just went on and on and on," Lucy Craft reported for NPR from Tokyo. She said she was in the building in Tokyo that houses Japan's Diet, or parliament, when the quake struck.
"The subways were stopped, most of the transportation links are halted now, the highways are closed, trains are not running. It's difficult to make phone calls," Craft said. "So the country has just come to a screeching halt."
She said Japan spends huge amounts of money on disaster prevention and resistance. But even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions.
"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."
He said the Defense Ministry is sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
In the U.S., President Obama expressed his condolences, saying in a statement that "the United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial. The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakable." Obama said U.S. officials were monitoring tsunamis in the Pacific and that he had ordered FEMA to be ready to assist Hawaii and any other U.S states and territories that could be affected.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Latin American nations, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities said they expect a 3-foot-high tsunami.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in Tokyo at his office in a trading company when the quake hit. It sent bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor, and cracks appeared in the walls.
"I've been through many earthquakes, but I've never felt anything like this," he said. "I don't know if we'll be able to get home tonight."
Footage on NHK from their Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks. It also showed a glass shelter at a bus stop in Tokyo completely smashed by the quake and a weeping woman nearby being comforted by another woman.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a magnitude 7.3 one Wednesday.
Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the carnage.
"We don't even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things," he said.
Japan's worst previous quake was in 1923 in Kanto, an magnitude 8.3 temblor that killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. A magnitude 7.2 quake in Kobe city in 1996 killed 6,400 people.
Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. A magnitude 8.8 temblor that shook central Chile last February also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.
NPR's Louisa Lim reported from Beijing for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.