Thousands of people were feared dead yesterday after a tsunami triggered by one of the biggest earthquakes in history hit Japan.
Ships, trains, buildings and cars were swept away as monster 33ft waves smashed into the port city of Sendai.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared a nuclear emergency when the 8.9 magnitude quake shut down the cooling systems at the country’s largest atomic plant.
Experts were last night battling to stop radiation leaks as 6,000 people were evacuated and US military jets flew in chemicals to avert a disaster.
Amid the desolation, more than 300 bodies washed up when the catastrophic flood waters retreated.
But Japanese authorities said 80,000 people are missing and fear the death toll will rise dramatically in the coming days.
Hundreds of fires continued to burn last night in Kesennuma, a coastal town of 70,000 people, with little hope of being put out. A boat carrying 80 dock workers was swept away in the 500mph tidal wave while a cruise ship with 100 passengers is also thought to be missing.
Officials have lost contact with four trains which are feared to have been engulfed by the tsunami along the coastline.
They include two of the famous bullet trains, one of them with 400 passengers.
As entire communities remained cut off, one emergency worker said: “We witnessed biblical scenes. Huge container ships were tossed around like matchsticks. There was nothing anyone could do.”
The quake is the sixth largest of all time and the worst to hit Japan.
Capital Tokyo survived the tremors relatively unscathed but one million residents in the north eastern city of Sendai watched in horror as the mammoth wall of water struck without warning.
Witnesses said there was an eerie silence “like the world had stopped” seconds before the quake hit at 2.46pm (5.46am UK time). Thousands of people were forced to run for their lives as killer waves full of mud and debris swallowed neighbourhoods. Desperate drivers tried to outrun the water in their cars along the coast.
Bridges were swept away and a packed hotel in the city collapsed.
A worldwide tsunami warning was issued after the tremor, which struck six miles down and 80 miles off the east coast.
Last night Japanese scientists decided to release radioactive vapour to ease temperatures at the Fukushima Daiich nuclear plant. Radiation levels were said to be 1,000 times the normal level.
Another 10 reactors at three other nuclear plants are also unstable because they have no electricity.
A second plant was later feared to have developed the same fault.
The pressure inside one of Fukushima’s six water reactors had risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal.
But experts said the radioactive element in the vapour released would not affect the environment or human health. Their main aim is to prevent radiation leaks as they repair cooling systems. The quake also started a fire in a turbine building at a nuclear power plant in north-eastern Japan, but the reactor was reported to be secure.