Thousands flee nuclear fallout

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It is starting to feel like elements of Hiroshima, Kobe and the Asian tsunami combined.

Last night, an explosion blew the roof off Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant and smoke began pouring out, as authorities prepared for a reactor meltdown.

Japan's worst recorded earthquake, a 10m tsunami, and the rumbling, shaking threat of a nuclear meltdown combined with an almost Biblical authority. The end times, it seemed, had come.

But one thing set yesterday apart from the disasters of the past century: the nations of the world came together with unprecedented speed in a bid to save the Japanese people from the death tolls of the past.

The devastation wrought by the 8.9-magnitude earthquake reverberated across the world as hundreds of thousands of people around the Pacific Rim fled to higher ground .

Thousands of the people of Tonga crowded the King's hillside residence to escape the approaching tsunami - only for the palatial quarters to be struck by a 6.1-magnitude earthquake.

As a large team of Japanese urban rescue workers prepared to fly out of Christchurch, where their dedication and fervour had attained almost mythic proportions, they learned that they were returning to even worse damage, even greater loss of life, at home.

Prime Minister John Key's promise that New Zealand would send over its own 48-strong search team seemed token against the scale of the disaster - and yet every New Zealander knew that it was an enormous gift at a time when this country is still struggling from the aftermath of its own earthquake.

It was only when the scale of Japan's devastation seemed incomprehensible that the tales of individuals - missing family members, terrified survivors, heroic strangers - began to provide some clarity.

One young Japanese woman, living and working in Auckland, has been unable to get in contact with her parents at her home in the coastal town of Sendai - the nearest city to the epicentre.

"My friends and family were calling me after the earthquake in Christchurch to see if I was okay - this time I am trying to call them," said 29-year-old Megumi Suzuki.

The cafe worker was in shock at pictures of her hometown, flattened. The city's airport was on fire, Japanese media said, and the homes to its million residents almost entirely under water.

"I saw the news but couldn't look at the screen. I cannot believe how Sendai has changed. I saw Sendai airport being flooded by the tsunami," she said. "I am very shocked."

Police said 200 to 300 bodies had been found in Sendai - but the search had barely begun. The official death toll last night was 413, with another 784 missing. After that, the numbers escalate rapidly: 200,000 people in evacuation centres, more than one million people without water, 5.6 million without power.

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Ministry says 20 New Zealanders are missing in the worst-hit area of the country, around the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.

It is in Fukushima, 240km north of Tokyo, that one of the two overheated nuclear power plants was last night leaking and rumbling ominously, as officials evacuated the adjacent town in anticipation of a meltdown.

Almost the entire length of Japan's northeast coastline was hammered by the huge tsunami, turning houses and ships into floating debris as it surged into cities and villages, sweeping aside everything in its path.

"I thought I was going to die," said Wataru Fujimura, 38, a Fukushima sales rep. "Our furniture and shelves had all fallen over and there were cracks in the building, so we spent the whole night in the car."

The unfolding natural disaster, which has been followed by dozens of aftershocks, prompted offers of search and rescue help from 50 countries.

Wellington's Aaron Balogh, 36, was on his way home from the junior high school in Saitama city, north of Tokyo, where he teaches English. "The road just started shaking and the houses around me rattling," he said. "I couldn't find a shelter, so I stayed close to my fence. I heard elementary students screaming and shouting."

In his Osaka shipping office, Aucklander Ben Takizawa, 34, could feel the building rocking back and forward. "It was very eerie and unnerving," he said. "Like being at sea in a large vessel."

- Herald on Sunday , AP

- Herald on Sunday

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