Quake, tsunami, meltdown: Japan's 2011 disaster as it happened

Katie Forster
·4-min read

It was just after quarter to three on a cold Friday afternoon when buildings across northeast Japan began to shake fiercely as one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded unleashed its fury.

The March 11, 2011 tremor, which triggered a catastrophic tsunami and nuclear disaster, was unlike anything Sayori Suzuki had experienced in her coastal town of Minamisoma.

"My son cried violently, and things just flew from the shelves," she said of the convulsions that continued for multiple terrifying minutes, crumbling homes and tearing cracks into roads.

The 9.0-magnitude quake was felt as far away as Beijing, and rocked Tokyo, where skyscrapers swayed alarmingly, fires broke out and the vast transport network came to a standstill.

But the day's horrors had just begun.

Miles offshore, as one part of the earth's crust smashed deeper under another, formidable tension was released and a section of the seabed was thrust upwards.

The sudden rift sent a series of huge waves racing towards Japan -- leaving 45 minutes or less for people to scramble to safety as the country issued its top tsunami warning.

"I grabbed grandfather and our dog and drove. The wave was right behind me, but I had to keep zigzagging around obstacles and the water," survivor Miki Otomo told AFP shortly afterwards.

Footage of the sea barrelling into the coast showed it obliterating concrete buildings and carrying boats, cars and chunks of flaming debris inland.

Otomo's family escaped to higher ground but her home in the city of Sendai was destroyed by the torrent, which swept through ports and low-lying fields with unstoppable force.

"I thought my life was over," said Kaori Ohashi, who spent two harrowing nights trapped inside a nursing home with other staff and 200 elderly residents.

Ohashi saw cars and their drivers thrown from roads by the raging water, and victims clinging to trees before being dragged under by the dark tide.

- Nuclear nightmare -

Fears quickly mounted over the region's nuclear power stations.

Officials stressed no radiation leak had been detected, but reports soon emerged that cooling systems had failed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant -- raising the spectre of a Chernobyl-like disaster.

Three of the plant's six reactors were running when their power supply was disabled by the quake and tsunami, risking overheating and potential meltdown.

A radiation controller working in a turbine building at the plant told AFP that equipment around him began to shake and creak loudly when the quake hit.

He ran up a hill and watched with other workers as waves swallowed a ten-metre pole and left the reactors looking like barren rocks at sea.

"We started hearing people screaming: 'Tsunami coming!' From the bay we saw white waves hurling towards us. I was terrified," he said.

By the evening, Japan declared a nuclear emergency and called for thousands living near the plant to leave.

As the day's apocalyptic images were beamed worldwide, millions left without electricity or water endured sub-zero temperatures overnight.

On Saturday morning, rescuers searched for survivors and victims across muddy wastelands where towns once stood, as hundreds of bodies began to wash ashore.

A vent was opened at the Fukushima plant to reduce pressure, releasing radioactive vapour into the air.

But at 3.30pm, an explosion ripped through a building housing one of the stricken reactors.

TV channels warned local residents to stay indoors and avoid tap water, while people outside were advised to cover their face with a wet towel.

- Radiation spike -

Workers doused the nuclear plant with seawater, trying to cool the reactors and avert a major radiation leak, but two more explosions rocked the site on Monday and Tuesday.

A fire then broke out at a reactor used to store spent nuclear fuel, sending radiation to dangerous levels.

"I didn't want this baby to be exposed to radiation. I wanted to avoid that, no matter what," said a young mother at one of the region's evacuation centres where 200,000 people took shelter after the disaster.

Panic spread and the price of iodine pills spiked worldwide as the no-go zone around the crippled plant grew and a frantic scramble to stabilise it began.

By December 2011, Japan said it had brought the reactors to "cold shutdown", significantly reducing the emission of radioactive materials.

But decommissioning work at the plant, where three reactors went into meltdown, is expected to take decades.

More than 18,400 people were killed or are still missing after the "triple" disaster, with some waiting for news of their loved ones a decade later.

It took Yuko Sugimoto and her husband three days traipsing from shelter to shelter to find their son, who was rescued from the roof of his kindergarten.

"I had taken it for granted before the disaster that I have my family and that tomorrow will come just like today," she told AFP at the time.

"But it's actually a miracle. We should make the most of every single day."

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