RIKUZENTAKATA came into being on January 1, 1955. But in less than a minute on Friday March 11, 2011, it was gone.
The might of nature has no respect for history nor the 24,000 people that called the coastal city home.
Horrified people all over the world watched news footage of the wall of muddy water tearing through its residential district, offices and factories like a steamroller.
It left only a black swamp and the bodies of 400 victims discovered by rescuers yesterday. The apocalyptic aftermath of Rikuzentakata’s destruction was revealed as rescuers warned that 10,000 people may have died in another city devastated by Friday’s earthquake and the resulting tsunami.
Minamisanriku had a population of 17,000 but nearly two in three are feared to have perished. The shocking toll has led to predictions that the number of deaths across Japan will be in the tens of thousands.
While rescuers and medics struggled to cope with the quake’s grim aftermath, a massive explosion at a nuclear power plant sparked a radiation alert.
It caused walls and the roof of the Fukushima Number 1 plant to collapse, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Four workers were hurt and there were fears of a Chernobyl-style meltdown.
In Rikuzentakata, rescue teams were faced with the harrowing task of collecting corpses from the debris as survivors stumbled pitifully seeking relatives and friends.
On Friday, the north eastern coastal city had been buzzing with thousands of cars in the evening rush hour. But in moments the monstrous tsunami had crushed all in its path, leaving just a tangled mess of wrecked wooden homes.
The densely populated city, where 102 people packed each square kilometre, became a floating graveyard with some homes swept up to six miles away.
Shivering in a rescue centre, one survivor in her seventies said: “My husband is missing. Tsunami water was rising to my knees and I told him I would go first. He is not here yet.
“I’m waiting for my son to come here but I cannot call him because mobile phones aren’t working.”
Rescued… a man who was trapped is carried by a Japan Self-Defense Force soldier in Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture Reuters
Pictures from the air showed military helicopters lifting people from rooftops and submerged buildings surrounded by water and debris.
Mothers carried tots on their backs as they searched for loved ones amid the spiralling death toll.
Dozens of towns and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shattered by the violent tremors. Some remained inaccessible last night.
Police said as many as 300 bodies had been found in Sendai, the city closest to the epicentre. A further 137 were confirmed killed with 531 people missing.
Its airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris including cars, trucks, buses and even light planes. Large parts of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people, burned furiously into the night.
In nearby Iwanuma, terrifed staff and patients spelled out S.O.S. on a hospital roof.
In the city of Minamisoma, mud-soaked residents searched frantically for members of their families. A 40-year-old woman found the name of her parents on a list of evacuees – but her husband’s name was not there. Chusei Sato, a 61-year-old farmer who is searching for two relatives, watched from the top of a hill as the waters surged over the city. He said: “The tsunami devoured all the farm fields in a moment.”
Akira Onoda, 74, a hospital worker, told how he was trying to get home after the initial quake when he saw a woman rushing his way screaming “Tsunami!” He saw the massive waves trailing her but managed to escape by car.
Disaster… all that remains of Rikuzentakata
Quake survivors turned to internet sites such as Twitter and Google in a desperate bid to locate missing loved ones. Meanwhile the hunt continued for four trains including a bullet train carrying 300 passengers.
The quake was almost 8,000 times stronger than one that struck New Zealand last month and the resultant tsunami scattered fishing boats and trucks as if they were toys.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying cars, homes and other debris out to sea. A local official in Futuba, in Fukushima prefecture, said more than 90 per cent of houses in three coastal communities had been washed away. The official local death toll was 703 with 784 missing and 1,000 injured.
But it was feared these figures wildly underestimated the scale of the disaster.
Unconfirmed reports said 200 bodies had been transferred to gymnasiums in Iwanuma and Natori. The number of partially or completely destroyed buildings was put at 3,400 with more than 200 fires still raging. Around 5.57 million households had lost power.
The 8.9 magnitude quake, which struck at 2.46pm local time on Friday, left one of the world’s most advanced nations struggling to cope with its aftermath.
Yesterday help began to arrive from more than 60 countries. In capital Tokyo, hundreds of thousands remained stranded by the suspension of plane and train services.
With hotels full, hundreds of schools in the city took in stranded commuters. Yokohama Arena and Saitama Super Arena, normally used by concerts and events, were also being used as temporary shelter. A refinery in nearby Chiba caught fire.
Japan was last night braced for further tsunamis sparked by aftershocks. One with a magnitude of 6.7 yesterday rocked an inland area northwest of Tokyo.
Tragic toll from wave of death
Map of death… Japan
Our map shows the area of north-east Japan that was devastated by the tsunami following Friday’s powerful earthquake beneath the ocean.
Towns, cities and villages along the coast suffered destruction on an unimaginable scale and massive loss of life as a terrifying wall of water swept several miles inland.
The unforgiving wave crushed everything in its path. Last night the horrendous toll across Japan from the quake and tsunami stood at 1,300 dead, 1,280 injured and 12,000 missing.
Foreign secretary William Hague urged UK nationals in Japan to make contact with the British Embassy in Tokyo on +(81) 3 5211 1100 or the Consulate-General in Osaka on +(81) 6 6120 5600.
A number of charities are accepting donations for tsunami victims including the Red Cross.
- To help find loved ones missing after the quake, use Google’s person finder.