Byline: Michael Black
HUNDREDS of people have been confirmed dead and many more were missing last night after a massive earthquake hit Japan, triggering tsunami waves across the Pacific.
The quake, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, was 8,000 times more powerful than the one that devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last month, and one of the largest ever recorded.
It hit at 2.46pm (5.46am GMT) local time, unleashing a tsunami that reached heights of more than 20ft and crashed into the eastern coast of Japan.
The quake was followed by at least 12 powerful aftershocks.
A tsunami alert was issued covering a vast area of the globe, including New Zealand, Latin America, North America and eastern Russia. It was feared the wave could be higher than some low-lying Pacific islands.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles about 80 miles off the eastern coast, about 240 miles north east of Tokyo.
Police reported finding between 200 and 300 bodies in the north-eastern city of Sendai, the city closest to the epicentre. Another 88 were confirmed killed elsewhere, with at least 350 more missing. A state of emergency was declared at the Fukushima nuclear reactor after its cooling system failed. Officials said last they planned to release slightly radioactive vapour to ease pressure in the reactor which had risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal. They said the radioactive element in the vapour that would be released would not affect the environment or human health.
The Queen last night sent a message to Emperor Akihito, saying: "I was saddened to hear of the tragic loss of life caused by the earthquake which has struck north east Japan today."
Prime Minister David Cameron said the earthquake was a "terrible reminder of the destructive power of nature" and sent his sympathies to the people of Japan.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking after a meeting of the Cobra emergency response committee, said the UK was ready to send humanitarian aid and search and rescue teams.
President Barack Obama said it was a "catastrophic" disaster, and the United States stood ready to help any assistance that Japan required.
The Foreign Office said there were no reports of British casualties but warned that thousands of UK citizens were living or working in the country.
Among Britons trying to reach loved ones, which proved difficult due to phone lines going down, were relatives of graduates on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (Jet) programme. A co-ordinator at the London office said between 300 and 400 Britons are in Japan.
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 epicentre. …