Scientists said the quake ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.
"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, U.S. Geological Survey Scientist Brian Atwater told the Associated Press.Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles (kilometers) inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
Large fishing boats and other vessels rode high waves ashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged cars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the homes, probably because of burst gas pipes.
Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near Sendai, carrying buildings, some of them ablaze. Drivers attempted to flee. Sendai airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris that included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.
Highways to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. Telephone lines snapped. Train service in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets.
As night fell and temperatures hovered just above freezing, tens of thousands of people remained stranded in Tokyo, where the rail network was still down. The streets were jammed with cars, buses and trucks trying to get out of the city.