A colossal tsunami followed the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan on Friday, devastating coastal communities and killing at least hundreds. Authorities expected the death toll to rise as rescue workers reached hardest-hit communities, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared: "The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas of northern Japan."
The colossal 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck 80 miles off the eastern coast of Japan at 2:45 p.m. on Friday (12:45 a.m. EST), triggering a tsunami that rushed miles inland, sweeping away buildings, cars, and ships, as residents fled the waters. More than 50 aftershocks followed-some exceeding 6.0-magnitude-and residents in Tokyo felt the tremors 240 miles south of the epicenter.
The quake also triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific Ocean to parts of North and South America, as the wall of water traveled across the ocean at some 500 mph-faster than a jetliner. Seven-feet waves hit some beaches in Hawaii by Friday morning, and smaller waves reached the Oregon coast. Officials didn't report major damage in those areas, but warned that stronger waves could follow.
Assessing damage in Japan remained grueling, as emergency responders faced roads badly damaged or destroyed. Rescue workers reported already finding 200-300 bodies in Sendai, a northern port city of 1 million that suffered a 30-foot wall of water. Japan's NFK television network showed the tsunami carrying buildings inland as motorists tried to flee.
The giant waves rushed several miles inland across the coast before pulling cars, homes, and debris out to sea. The waters washed away more than 300 houses in the coastal Ofunato City.
The country's Defense Ministry said it was deploying troops to the region to help with rescue and recovery, as well as assess damage. Aid groups were assembling teams to assess damage and develop relief plans, even as darkness fell over the devastated region.
The quake represented the realization of deep fears for many Japanese: The country lies in the "Ring of Fire"-an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones in the Pacific. More than 90 percent of the world's earthquakes occur in the arc, including the 2004 quake that triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami.