A lone battle
Japan on Thursday marks 10 years since the worst natural disaster in the country’s living memory: a powerful earthquake, deadly tsunami and nuclear meltdown that traumatised a nation. Around 18,500 people were killed or left missing in the disaster, most of them claimed by the towering waves that swept across swathes of the northeast coast after one of the strongest quakes ever recorded.
This file picture taken on March 13, 2011 shows a Japanese rescuer walking across an area devastated by the tsunami in Sendai.
A disastrous grief
The March 11, 2011 tremor, which triggered a catastrophic tsunami and nuclear disaster, was unlike anything people of Japan had experienced. It was just after quarter to three on a cold Friday afternoon when buildings across northeast Japan began to shake fiercely as one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded unleashed its fury.
The 9.0-magnitude quake was felt as far away as Beijing, and rocked Tokyo, where skyscrapers swayed alarmingly, fires broke out and the vast transport network came to a standstill. But the day’s horrors had just begun. This file picture taken on March 14, 2011 shows a man comforting a woman as she cries in front of her damaged home in the town of Watari in Miyagi prefecture.
A wave of destruction
Miles offshore, as one part of the earth’s crust smashed deeper under another, formidable tension was released and a section of the seabed was thrust upwards. Footage of the sea barrelling into the coast showed it obliterating concrete buildings and carrying boats, cars and chunks of flaming debris inland.
This file picture taken on March 11, 2011 by Sadatsugu Tomizawa and released via Jiji Press on March 21, 2011 shows tsunami waves hitting the coast of Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture.
A tale of survival
Fears quickly mounted over the region’s nuclear power stations. Officials stressed no radiation leak had been detected, but reports soon emerged that cooling systems had failed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant — raising the spectre of a Chernobyl-like disaster. Three of the plant’s six reactors were running when their power supply was disabled by the quake and tsunami, risking overheating and potential meltdown.
This file photo taken on March 13, 2011 shows elderly people, evacuated from the area near the Fukushima nuclear plant, reading a newspaper with reports about the explosion at the plant.
A global emergency
By the evening, Japan declared a nuclear emergency and called for thousands living near the plant to leave. As the day’s apocalyptic images were beamed worldwide, millions left without electricity or water endured sub-zero temperatures overnight.
The sudden rift sent a series of huge waves racing towards Japan — leaving 45 minutes or less for people to scramble to safety as the country issued its top tsunami warning. This file picture taken on March 12, 2011 shows people evacuating with small boats down a road flooded by the tsunami waves in the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture.
A cry for help
Workers doused the nuclear plant with seawater, trying to cool the reactors and avert a major radiation leak, but two more explosions rocked the site on Monday and Tuesday. A fire then broke out at a reactor used to store spent nuclear fuel, sending radiation to dangerous levels.
Panic spread and the price of iodine pills spiked worldwide as the no-go zone around the crippled plant grew and a frantic scramble to stabilise it began. More than 18,400 people were killed or are still missing after the “triple” disaster, with some waiting for news of their loved ones a decade later. This file aerial view picture taken on March 14, 2011 during an AFP-chartered flight shows an area destroyed by the tsunami in Minamisanriku, in Miyagi prefecture.
A decade of struggle
A decade after radiation forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in Fukushima, some towns in the region are still wrestling with the difficult question of how to rebuild a community from scratch.
This file picture taken on March 14, 2011 shows residents carrying belongings from tsunami devastated homes in Natori, Miyagi prefecture.