SENDAI, Japan » Miles from the ocean’s edge, weary, mud-spattered survivors wandered streets strewn with fallen trees, crumpled cars, even small airplanes. Relics of lives now destroyed were everywhere — half a piano, a textbook, a soiled red sleeping bag.
Today, one day after a massive tsunami tore through Sendai, residents surveyed the devastation that has laid waste to whole sections of this northern port of 1 million people, 80 miles from the epicenter of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake that set off one of the worst disasters in Japan’s history.
Rescue workers plied boats through murky waters around flooded structures, nosing their way through a sea of detritus, while smoke from at least one large fire billowed in the distance. Power and phone reception was cut off, while hundreds of people lined up outside the few still-operating supermarkets for basic commodities. The gas stations on streets not covered with water were swamped with people waiting to fill their cars.
A Family Mart convenience store three miles from the shore was open for business today, though there was no power and the floors were covered in a thick layer of grime.
"The flood came in from behind the store and swept around both sides," said shop owner Wakio Fushima. "Cars were flowing right by."
With most other stores closed, a steady flow of customers stocked up on drinks and instant noodles, knowing it would be a long time before life returns to anything like normal. Some recalled the massive waves and how they cheated death.
"The tsunami was unbelievably fast," said Koichi Takairin, a 34-year-old truck driver who watched everything around him sucked into the surging waters as he sat inside his sturdy 4-ton rig.
"Smaller cars were being swept around me," he said. "All I could do was sit in my truck."
He managed to wait out the waves that swept some six miles inland, but an unknown number of others perished. Police said they had found 200 to 300 bodies washed up on nearby beaches, but authorities are only now getting a look at the extent of the devastation in Sendai and along the nearby coast.
Many area residents spent the night outdoors or wandering debris-strewn streets, unable to return to homes damaged or destroyed by the quake or tsunami. Those who did find a place to rest for the night awoke to scenes of utter devastation. Takairin slept in a community center.
Workers at an electronics store in Sendai gave away batteries, flashlights and mobile phone chargers. Several dozen people waited patiently outside even as a steady stream of aftershocks shook the city.
From a distance the store appeared to have survived yesterday’s devastation intact. But a closer look revealed several windows smashed out and walls buckled slightly outward.
Inside was chaos. The ceiling of the second floor had collapsed, and large TVs, air conditioners and other products lay smashed and strewn about the aisles. A statue of a white dog, mascot of a Japanese mobile carrier, sat askew in a dark corner.
Pieces of bright yellow insulation from the ceiling lay scattered on the ground, and the contents of the entire building were soaked by the automatic sprinklers that were triggered by the quake.
"Chunks of the ceiling were falling all around us," said Hiroyuki Kamada, who was working at the store when the initial temblor hit. "Things were shaking so much, we couldn’t stand up. After three or four minutes, it lessened a bit and we dashed outside."
Most buildings out of range of the tsunami appeared to have survived the quake without much damage, though some older wooden structures were toppled. Paved roads had buckled in some places.
Mobile phone saleswoman Naomi Ishizawa, 24, was working when the quake hit in the middle afternoon. She said it took until nightfall to reach her house just outside Sendai and check on her parents, who were both OK. Her family’s home was still standing, but the walls of a bedroom and bathroom had collapsed and debris was strewn throughout.
And yet she was lucky. The tsunami’s inland march had stopped just short of her residence; other houses in her neighborhood were destroyed.
Like many people throughout Japan’s northeast, she had not heard from others in her family and was worried.
"My uncle and his family live in an area near the shore where there were a lot of deaths," Ishizawa said. "We can’t reach them."