JUDY WOODRUFF: The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan unleashed a devastating tsunami today.
The quake, magnitude-8.9, struck less than 100 miles offshore. It sent a wall of water crashing into Sendai and other towns. Japanese news reports said the death toll could exceed 1,000.
The quake hit at 2:46 in the afternoon local time, and within minutes, tsunami waves blasted ashore. A surge that measured 23-feet-tall crushed homes, factories, cars and ships in a rush of destruction that carried burning buildings and everything else.
Huge walls of water crashed over seawalls, roads and port facilities. The raging tide tossed fishing boats like toys, slamming them into each other and washing them under highway overpasses.
Even larger vessels anchored in port were caught up, and some boats offshore were trapped in enormous whirlpools. From there, the blankets of muddy water choked with debris surged several miles inland. Acres of farmland were swallowed near Sendai, while the city's airport was inundated with thick mud, covering its runways.
Even as the water receded, it left miles of debris in the streets of shattered towns. The quake also flattened buildings along 1,300 miles of Japan's east coast, and the violent shaking sent crowds rushing out of high-rise office buildings.
WOMAN (through translator): I managed to crawl out of that building by myself.
QUESTION: So did you get out by yourself?
JUDY WOODRUFF: The cooling system failed at a nuclear power plant in Onahama, halfway between Sendai and Tokyo. Several thousand people were evacuated, and officials moved to release slightly radioactive vapor from the plant to ease pressure in the reactor.
BANRI KAIEDA, Japanese industry minister (through translator): Due to the air release procedure, there's a possibility that radioactive materials may be released into the air. But the amount is minimal.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Farther down the coast, the earthquake touched off a huge fire at an oil refinery, sending 100-foot flames into the sky.
Transportation was severely disrupted throughout the country, as highways leading to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. And train services in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo were suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets.
MAN (through translator): Today, it was scary. Now, I think I am going to walk and stay at a friend's place who lives nearby.
WOMAN (through translator): If there are no taxis left, I guess I have to find a place to stay tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: More than 50 power aftershocks came in the hours following the initial quake, one of them a magnitude-7.1. The tremors were felt nearly 240 miles away in Tokyo, so strong they interrupted a Parliament meeting.
Tokyo's Narita Airport was closed indefinitely. More than four million buildings remained without power around the capital city and its suburbs. And thousands of people were still stranded where the streets were jammed with cars, buses and trucks. Japanese officials said they were straining to respond to the scope of the devastation.
YUKIO EDANO, Japanese chief Cabinet secretary (through translator): The situation is worse than expected. The government will do its best to support the affected areas and contain the damage.
We have received info that a great number of people are dead. As for tsunamis, there's a chance that waves bigger than the first could hit over the coming day or so.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, President Obama said he spoke to Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the hours after the quake and said the United States was ready to send assistance.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I'm heartbroken by this tragedy.
I think, when you see what's happening in Japan, you are reminded that, for all our differences in culture or language or religion, that ultimately, humanity is -- is one.
JUDY WOODRUFF: As night fell, rescue crews were still searching for the missing. Those left homeless began stocking up on food, preparing to sleep in evacuation centers without electricity. And fires triggered by broken gas lines in Sendai raged in the darkness.
Overall, it was the deadliest earthquake event to strike Japan since a 7.2-magnitude quake rocked Kobe city in 1995, killing 6,400 people.
By now, it is Saturday morning in Japan, and the extent of the devastation is clear to see. New TV images show vast tracks of coastal areas underwater from the tsunami. And smoke is still rising from fires that began many hours ago.
To get firsthand accounts of today's disaster, I spoke with three people in Tokyo earlier to hear their observations.
Kenneth Cukier, a correspondent for "The Economist," spoke to us via a Skype connection from his home in Tokyo and told us where he was when the quake hit.
KENNETH CUKIER, "The Economist": I was in a coffee shop in central Tokyo working on an article, when suddenly, the table, a huge oak table that would seat 14 people around it -- it's an entire tree -- started shaking considerably. It's too heavy to normally shake like that.
As people looked up, we saw then the chandeliers and the lights swaying in an eerily way, sort of like in a submarine and in the movies. We realized that something was going on. Now, Tokyoites are used to tremors and earthquakes. We get it occasionally, you know, once or twice a month. However, they are usually of a short duration and not that big. Maybe a book will fall, but that's it.
This was very different. And people were very silent, looking at each other, nervous. After about 10 seconds of considerable amounts of movement, the word "ookii" started being said all around, which means big, or it's a big one.
Suddenly, it started again. And people got very upset. They started running out for the doors. The entire building was pitching and lurching and swaying.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Public transit shut down in Tokyo, stranding a multiple of commuters in the metropolis and causing widespread gridlock.
KENNETH CUKIER: Now, Japan is an incredibly orderly and harmonious country. And the cliche is right. So, what you saw were streams of people walking, but they're walking at an orderly pace.
And when the light turned red at the crosswalk, everyone stopped, even though the cars were in gridlock. People could have walked through, but they didn't. They just -- they kept their pace and -- because they also realized, in situations like this, what is most important is order. They are orderly in the best of times, but they're particularly orderly now.
That's very different than in most other countries, where you would -- might see looting, where people are going to exploit the chaos -- never, never in Japan.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Financial Times reporter Jonathan Soble also spoke to us through Skype from Tokyo. He was in his fourth-floor apartment, leaving for an interview, when the shaking began.
JONATHAN SOBLE, The Financial Times: The reaction in Tokyo really depended on your altitude at the time. I mean, I heard from people who were scared for their lives on the 30th, 40th floor of high office towers and spent a panicked hour or more going -- trying to get down stairwells, a situation that probably Americans -- brings a whole -- another disaster to mind for Americans.
But then, at the same, outside of -- outside of my house, there is a small park, and there were there were boys playing catch. And I guess they're on ground level and they're children, they didn't bat an eye, and they kept playing catch, even as -- even as people came out of the buildings around them, and, you know, to get out of their houses.
And, so, it's -- there was a -- it was a real mixed bag.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Soble said that a principal concern is the condition of those nuclear power facilities damaged by the temblor.
JONATHAN SOBLE: Not long ago, within the last hour, the government announced that it had given permission for the operators of the most-affected nuclear plant to release air pressure that was building up inside one of the reactors, which is potentially dangerous.
And the release itself also carries risks, because they're saying that it could end up releasing what they call a tiny amount of radioactive material into the air.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite the extensive damage, engineer Kit Miyamoto says that stringent building codes and widespread retrofitting of older buildings has made Japan the world's best earthquake-prepared country.
KIT MIYAMOTO, engineer: We experience the major earthquakes almost -- nearly every 10 years or so. So, therefore, you have the contractors and engineers and general public, they become so aware of the risk, of danger of it and technology developed.
There are technologies available to do right and very cost-effectively. For example, if you spend sometimes even just only 10 to 15 percent of a replacement cost, you can make this dangerous concrete structure safe as new buildings. So, there are technologies like that. You can use the shock-absorbing devices, base isolations, fiber-reinforced plastic. There are many different methodologies to make it stronger in a very cost-effective manner.
JUDY WOODRUFF: When the quake struck, Miyamoto was on a train, which automatically stopped in and on its tracks. He walked to a nearby station. Once home, like many countrymen, he turned on the television.
KIT MIYAMOTO: One town is literally burned down by the fire, and because of the earthquake.
And, also, flood caused by the tsunami, it measured between four meter to up to seven meters. I mean, seven meters, literally, you are talking about a two-story building, two-story building height. You know, the water wall essentially come up to you at the speed of the jetliner. And warning time is very, very short, because the epicenter was about 80 miles offshore of Sendai, so they probably had about five to 10 minutes, maximum.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Miyamoto says some seawalls have been built to help withstand tsunamis around Japan, but that the water hit where the walls were not.