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Aucklander Kimberley Rothville was teaching English to a classroom full of primary children when the earthquake struck her town of Ueda-machi, Fukushima Prefecture, about halfway between Tokyo and Sendai.

"Earthquake alarms started going off on teachers' cell phones and the teachers looked up, but weren't worried."

Children began filing out of their classrooms.

"Then it started getting worse and worse and everything was shaking violently, like really, really violently. All the children started moving out into the carpark as soon as it started, but when it really started to get bad, they stopped and braced themselves where they could," said the Auckland University graduate.

Children were screaming and crying, particularly when they saw huge cracks on the sportsfield.

"I'm about 1.5km inland from the sea, and very close to the river, which luckily has huge dykes along the side of it and flood plains, so the tsunami didn't enter the town from there, it came in a limited amount through some smaller streams," she said.

The river swelled to about 1.5m higher than usual while the surrounding plains were covered in water, mud, and debris.

People in her town now faced a massive clean-up.