An aerial view shows tsunami damage and flooding in Natori city in Miyagi… (Jiji Press / AFP/Getty Images )
Rescue workers traveling by helicopter have begun arriving in devastated areas of northeastern Japan, pulling up stranded residents from the aftermath of the fifth-strongest earthquake on record.
The historic damage of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake was still coming into focus Saturday in Japan. Much of a coastal city seemed to have been swept away the day before. NHK TV broadcast helicopter footage of Minamisoma, which has a population of about 70,000 in Fukushima Prefecture on the eastern coast, showing much of the city reduced to concrete foundations.
Kyodo News Agency reported that four East Japan Railway Co. trains running in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures were still missing after the tsunami.
More than 200 people were confirmed dead from Friday's earthquake, according to local media, and officials feared the death toll could top 1,000. Many appeared to have died after a massive tsunami crashed along the northeastern coast. Helicopter video images showed black, mucky walls of water racing across Japanese farmland and towns, overtaking helpless motorists attempting to flee.
Photos: Scenes from the earthquake
Officials raised concern over two nuclear power plants, Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2, in the hardest-hit area. News agencies said the cooling system had failed, putting the plants at risk for a meltdown and release of radioactive material. At least 3,000 people living near the plants were ordered evacuated.
For a nation that has long lived with the threat of earthquakes, Friday's massive temblor and ensuing tsunami shook even veterans of previous earthquakes.
Kit Miyamoto, chief executive officer of Miyamoto International, an earthquake structural engineering company, said he was near Ikebukuro station in Tokyo when the train suddenly lurched with a loud creaking sound. He said the rail systems shut down, and he was still walking on the train tracks at 1:30 a.m. Saturday.
Videos of the earthquake
"Continuous aftershocks make me feel like I have car sickness as my family and I walk on the train tracks," Miyamoto said in an e-mail.
"The Northridge earthquake was nothing compared to this one," said Los Angeles marketing executive Bill Imada, who was visiting Tokyo on Friday. "This was longer, more violent and more frightening. The four of us from California were shocked at the violence of this quake."
Imada said the group, a 13-member Japanese American leadership delegation aiming to deepen U.S.-Japan ties, was in a bus heading to a meeting with business leaders when the vehicle suddenly jolted. He said he thought the bus had run over a curb until the driver began yelling "earthquake, earthquake!"
Imada said buildings and trees began swaying. People came running out, screaming and holding on to each other to keep their balance. The bus began rocking so violently that Erwin Furukawa, a vice president of Southern California Edison in Los Angeles and another member of the delegation, said he thought it would tip over.
"I was thinking, 'Oh my God, if this tips over, how do you get out of this bus?' " said Furukawa, who also experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in Northern California.
Two construction cranes atop a skyscraper nearby swayed but never fell over. Hotel staff members scurried to check on guests and Japanese business leaders insisted on holding their scheduled meeting with the delegation, despite swaying chandeliers with every aftershock.
With most train and subway service cut, families reported being cut off from their loved ones in the hours after the quake. But damage in Tokyo paled in comparison to the destruction in the northeast.
In the eastern coast town of Rikuzentakada, train tracks were buried under piles of tree branches and debris. To the south, in Sendai, smoke and fire billowed from an industrial area. Further away, floodwaters had transformed homes into boats, and one white, single-story house was found wedged underneath a bridge. Rice paddies were transformed into pools of wreckage.
NHK television broadcast footage Saturday morning of Japan's Self-Defense Force personnel rescuing stranded residents from rooftops in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hardest-hit regions. Elsewhere, soldiers carried the elderly on their backs.
Kyodo news agency said 200 to 300 bodies were found on the beach in Sendai, a city of 1 million people.
The earthquake occurred on a portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire. It took place in the Japan Trench, where the Pacific tectonic plate slides under the Japan plate.
The quake was a "perfect storm for tsunami generation," said Susan Hough of the U.S. Geological Survey, because it was large in magnitude and very shallow. The quake was so close to land, about 80 miles offshore, that people on the shore really had no warning that a 15-foot wave was imminent.