TOKYO — A ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes on record slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it swept away ships, cars and homes while widespread fires burned out of control.
Hours later, the tsunami hit Hawaii but did not cause major damage. Warnings blanketed the Pacific, putting areas on alert as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West coast. In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed.
Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the city in Miyagi Prefecture, or state, closest to the epicenter. Another 110 were confirmed dead, with 350 people missing. Police also said 544 people were injured.
The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 23-foot tsunami and was followed for hours by more than 50 aftershocks, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0.
Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in the city of Onahama to move back at least two miles from the plant. The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after the shutdown. The plant is 170 miles northeast of Tokyo.
Trouble was reported at two other nuclear plants as well, but there was no radiation leak at either of them.
Japan's coast guard said it was searching for 80 dock workers on a ship that was swept away from a shipyard in Miyagi.
Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.