'The road was moving up and down like a wave'
IT WAS an ordinary train on an ordinary journey, rattling comfortably along Japan's eastern coast. But seconds later it was swept off the tracks by the ferocious waves of the tsunami and dumped, mangled and twisted, in the mud.
The terrifying ease with which the local train was flung off its rails near Shinchi town symbolises the awesome power of the raging waters that battered Japan, leaving a trail of devastation and a nation in mourning.
It was one of four coastal trains, carrying an unknown number of passengers, with which rail companies lost contact. The other three had still not been found last night.
The Japanese are used to earthquakes; they prepare for them meticulously. But nothing could have prepared them for this, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded .
Yesterday, after a night which many spent wandering the streets or in temporary shelters, residents surveyed the wreckage of their homes.
As they did so, there were more aftershocks, adding to their anxiety. Some were unable even to find their houses because they had been totally destroyed .
As rescue workers launched the biggest operation in modern Japanese history, tens of thousands of traumatised families waited to find out about loved ones who were missing.
In Sendai, which has a population of one million, whole sections of the port city were crushed as the tsunami swept inland for six miles. Exhausted survivors wandered the streets yesterday, picking their way past fallen trees, wrecked cars, books, shoes and children's toys.
One eye-witness saw a lorry lying on its side and a dead man in the driving seat.
"Then I saw a man walking, black with mud, like something from a horror film," he said.
He had been evacuated to a school gym but that too was hit by the tsunami. He survived only because he managed to grab hold of a floating object and swam until he reached higher ground.
Survivors huddled over heaters in emergency shelters. Kumi Onodera, a 34-year-old dental technician in Sendai, said: "Everything is so hard now."
She described her ordeal the night before as "like a scene from a disaster movie".
"The road was moving up and down like a wave. Things were on fire and it was snowing," she said.
Rescue workers in boats nudged through the murky water around the port. Power and phone connections were cut. In the distance smoke billowed from a large fire.
Hundreds of people queued outside the few supermarkets and petrol stations that had not been flooded.
"The water came behind the store and swept around both sides," said Wakio Fushima, the owner of a shop three miles from the shore. "Cars were flowing right by."
About 2,000 people were given shelter at a school. Tashiro-ku, 33, who was forced to leave her flooded apartment was worried that she had not been able to contact her husband. "It's very cold," she said. "We need blankets."
An elderly man told Japanese television: "There are so many people who lost their lives," before breaking down in tears. "I have no words to say."
Police said they found up to 300 bodies washed up on nearby beaches, but such was the might of the tsunami that the full scale of its destructive power will take days, if not weeks, to become apparent.
Further down the coast in Fukushima Joe Eudy, 52, an American, was working at a nuclear plant when the tsunami hit. He made a brief call to his wife at home in the US before fleeing with colleagues.
His wife Janie was waiting anxiously for news. "I'm sitting by the phone waiting, watching ... not knowing," she said.
"Can they get out? Can they make it? Are they getting water? It's just worry after worry. We hear about the radioactive air. He has wounds. I worry about infection."
Amid the tragedy there were tales of heroism. When the siren told Kasuaki Sasaki that the tsunami was rolling towards his house in Fukushima, his first thought was for his 90-year-old mother, Lii Sasaki, who is unable to walk, and lived at a care home four miles away and just over a mile from the shore.
Mr Sasaki, 62, jumped in his car and raced to the home. It was a chaotic scene, as residents and staff were hurriedly evacuated towards nearby high ground.
Mr Sasaki found his mother among the crowd, picked her up and attempted to carry her to safety.
"The tidal wave came in unbelievably quickly. It took about 30 seconds to reach the home from the shore.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it, and that we were both going to die. Even when I reached the hill I was waist-deep in black water."
But he carried his mother high enough up the hill to save her life. He also helped two other people to flee the building but had to watch as others were swept away by the powerful waves.
"I saw people trying to run away from the shore," he said. They had no chance."
There were also some narrow escapes. Koichiro Tezuka, a photographer with The Mainichi Daily News, who flew over quake-ravaged areas, escaped injury and possible death only because his helicopter took off from Sendai Airport just moments before the ground was swamped by the tsunami.
Mr Tezuka had been in the air photographing for another story when the earthquake struck. His flight landed at Sendai Airport, and tried to refuel, but the pilot, sensing danger, took off immediately. Moments later the tsunami hit.
"I felt terrified to think what would have happened if I had stayed on the ground," he said.