TOKYO (AP) - For more than two terrifying, seemingly endlessminutes Friday, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japanshook apart homes and buildings, cracked open highways and unnervedeven those who have learned to live with swaying skyscrapers. Thencame a devastating tsunami that slammed into northeastern Japan andkilled hundreds of people.
The violent wall of water swept away houses, cars and ships.Fires burned out of control. Power to cooling systems at twonuclear power plant was knocked out, forcing thousands of nearbyresidents to be evacuated. A boat was caught in the vortex of awhirlpool at sea.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the day, but the trueextent of the disaster was not known because roads to the worst-hitareas were washed away or blocked by debris and airports wereclosed.
After dawn Saturday, the scale of destruction becameclearer.
Aerial scenes of the town of Ofunato showed homes and warehousesin ruins. Sludge and high water spread over acres of land, withpeople seeking refuge on roofs of partially submerged buildings. Atone school, a large white "SOS" had been spelled out inEnglish.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said an initial assessmentfound "enormous damage," adding that the Defense Ministry wassending troops to the hardest-hit region.
President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what hecalled a potentially "catastrophic" disaster. He said one U.S.aircraft carrier is already in Japan and a second was on its way. AU.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands to assist asneeded, he added.
The entire Pacific had been put on alert - including coastalareas of South America, Canada and Alaska - but waves were not asbad as expected.
The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local timeand was the biggest to hit Japan since record-keeping began in thelate 1800s. It ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the worldsince 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one thatdevastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, scientistssaid.
The quake shook dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile(2,100-kilometer) stretch of coast and tall buildings swayed inTokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter. Prime Minister NaotoKan was attending a parliamentary session at the time.
"I thought I was going to die," said Tokyo marketing employeeKoto Fujikawa. "It felt like the whole structure wascollapsing."
Fujikawa, 28, was riding a monorail when the quake hit and hadto later pick her way along narrow, elevated tracks to the neareststation.
Minutes later, the earthquake unleashed a 23-foot (seven-meter)tsunami along the northeastern coast of Japan near the coastal cityof Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. The quake was followed for hours byaftershocks. The U.S. Geological Survey said 124 were detected offJapan's main island of Honshu, 111 of them of magnitude 5.0 orgreater.
Large fishing boats and other vessels rode the high wavesashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them andsnapping power lines along the way. A fleet of partially submergedcars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed againsteach other.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in itspath inland before reversing direction and carrying the cars, homesand other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the homes,apparently from burst gas pipes.
Waves of muddy waters flowed over farms near Sendai, carryingbuildings, some of them ablaze. Drivers attempted to flee. Thetarmac at Sendai's airport was inundated with thick, muddy debristhat included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.
Highways to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. Telephone linessnapped. Train service was suspended in northeastern Japan and inTokyo, which normally serves 10 million people a day. Untoldnumbers of people were stranded in stations or roaming the streets.Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
Police said 200-300 bodies were found in Sendai, although theofficial casualty toll was 185 killed, 741 missing and 948injured.
A ship with 80 dock workers was swept away from a shipyard inMiyagi. All on the ship was believed to be safe, although thevessel had sprung a leak and was taking on some water, Japan'scoast guard said.
In the coastal town of Minami-soma, about 1,800 houses weredestroyed or ravaged, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said. Fireburned well past dark in a large section of Kesennuma, a city of70,000 people in Miyagi.
A resident in Miyagi prefecture who had been stranded on hisroof, surrounded by water, mud and fallen trees, was rescued by aSelf-Defense Force helicopter Saturday morning, TV videoshowed.
Japan declared its first-ever states of emergency for fivenuclear reactors at two power plants after the units lost coolingability in the aftermath of the earthquake, and workers struggledto prevent meltdowns.
The earthquake knocked out power at the Fukushima Daiichi plant,and because a backup generator failed,
the cooling system wasunable to supply water to cool the 460-megawatt No. 1 reactor.Although a backup cooling system is being used, Japan's nuclearsafety agency said pressure inside the reactor had risen to 1.5times the level considered normal.
Authorities said radiation levels had jumped 1,000 times normalinside Unit 1 and were measured at eight times normal outside theplant. They expanded an earlier evacuation zone more thanthreefold, from 3 kilometers to 10 kilometers (2 miles to 6.2miles). About 3,000 people were urged to leave their homes in thefirst announcement.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. warned of power shortages and an"extremely challenging situation in power supply for a while."
The utility, which also operates reactors at the nearbyFukushima Daini plant, later confirmed that cooling ability hadbeen lost at three of four reactors there, as well as a secondFukushima Daiichi unit. The government promptly declared a state ofemergency there as well.
The level outside the 40-year-old plant in Onahama, a city about170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, is still consideredvery low compared to the annual exposure limit, said Ryohei Shiomi,an official with the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Itwould take 70 days of standing at the gate to reach the limit, hesaid.
The Defense Ministry said it had sent troops trained to dealwith chemical disasters to the plants in case of a radiationleak.
An American working at the Fukushima Daiichi facility said thewhole building shook and debris fell from the ceiling. Danny Eudy,52, a technician employed by Texas-based Atlantic PlantMaintenance, and his colleagues escaped the building just as thetsunami hit, his wife told The Associated Press.
"He walked through so much glass that his feet were cut. Itslowed him down," said Pineville, Louisiana, resident Janie Eudy,who spoke to her husband by phone after the quake.
The group watched homes and vehicles carried away in the waveand found their hotel mostly destroyed when they reached it.
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in the city ofIchihara and burned out of control with 100-foot (30-meter) flameswhipping into the sky.
Also in Miyagi prefecture, a fire broke out in a turbinebuilding of a nuclear power plant, but it was later extinguished,said Tohoku Electric Power Co.
Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan and Honda halted productionat some assembly plants in areas hit by the quake. One worker waskilled and more than 30 injured after being crushed by a collapsingwall at a Honda Motor Co. research facility in northeastern Tochigiprefecture, the company said.
Jesse Johnson, a native of Nevada who lives in Chiba, north ofTokyo, was eating at a sushi restaurant with his wife when thequake hit.
"At first it didn't feel unusual, but then it went on and on. SoI got myself and my wife under the table," he told the AP. "I'velived in Japan for 10 years, and I've never felt anything like thisbefore. The aftershocks keep coming. It's gotten to the point whereI don't know whether it's me shaking or an earthquake."
Tokyo was brought to a near standstill. Tens of thousands ofpeople were stranded with the rail network down, and the streetswere jammed with cars, buses and trucks trying to get out of thecity.
The city set up 33 shelters in city hall, on university campusesand in government offices, but many planned to spend the night at24-hour cafes, hotels and offices.
NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power inTokyo and its suburbs.
Jefferies International Ltd., a global investment banking group,estimated overall losses of about $10 billion.
The tsunami hit Hawaii before dawn Friday, with most damagecoming on the Big Island. The waves covered beachfront roads andrushed into hotels. One house was picked up and carried out to sea.Low-lying areas in Maui were flooded by 7-foot waves.
On the U.S. mainland, marinas and harbors in California andOregon bore the brunt of the damage, estimated by authorities to bein the millions of dollars. Boats crashed into each other inmarines and some vessels were washed out to sea.
Rescue crews were searching for a man who was swept away innorthern California while taking pictures. Two people with himtried to rescue him, although they were able to return toshore.
Thousands fled homes in Indonesia after officials warned of atsunami up to 6 feet (2 meters) high, but waves of only 4 inches(10 centimeters) were measured. No big waves came to the NorthernMariana Islands, a U.S. territory, either.
Islands across the South Pacific were hit by bigger-than-normalwaves, but no major damage was reported. Surges up to 26 inches (66centimeters) high were reported in American Samoa, Nauru, Saipanand at the far northern tip of New Zealand.
In Tonga, water flooded houses in the low-lying Ha'apai islandsearly Saturday, police said. Thousands in the capital, Nuku'alofa,sought refuge at the king's residence on higher ground, Radio Tongasaid.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about80 miles
(125 kilometers) off Japan's east coast, the USGS said.The area is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo. Severalquakes hit the same region in recent days, including one measuredat magnitude 7.3 on Wednesday that caused no damage.
"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to onemonth's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, USGSscientist Brian Atwater told The Associated Press.
Early Saturday, a magnitude-6.6 earthquake struck the central,mountainous part of Japan - far from the original quake'sepicenter. It was not immediately clear if that temblor was relatedto the others.
Japan's worst previous quake was a magnitude 8.3 in Kanto thatkilled 143,000 people in 1923, according to USGS. A 7.2-magnitudequake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995.
Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire" - an arc of earthquake andvolcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percentof the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered theDec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated230,000 people in 12 countries. A magnitude-8.8 temblor that shookcentral Chile in February 2010 also generated a tsunami and killed524 people.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report JayAlabaster, Mari Yamaguchi, Tomoko A. Hosaka and Yuri Kageyama inTokyo; Jeff Donn in Boston; Seth Borenstein and Julie Pace inWashington; Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans; Jaymes Song andAudrey McAvoy in Honolulu; Denise Petski and Daisy Nguyen in LosAngeles; Garance Burke in San Francisco; Nigel Duara in Seaside,Ore.; Jeff Barnard in Crescent City, Calif.; Alicia Chang inPasadena, Calif.; and Mark Niesse in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.