Published: June 14, 2008
Filed at 9:44 a.m. ET

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The New York Times

 

KURIHARA, Japan (AP) — A magnitude-7.2 earthquake ripped across mountains and rice fields in northern Japan on Saturday, killing at least six people as it sheared off hillsides, jolted buildings and shook nuclear power plants. At least eight people were missing.

Military helicopters swarmed the quake zone 250 miles north of Tokyo, ferrying in supplies and flying injured to hospitals. Officials said at least 144 people were injured and landslides trapped 100 bathers at a hot spring resort.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said the government was mobilizing troops, police and ”everybody we possibly can” to find the missing and rescue and treat the injured.

”Our most important task is to save as many lives as possible, and we are doing the best we can,” he said.

The force of the quake, which was followed by 153 aftershocks, buckled countless roads, including one highway that was severed when a stretch of land collapsed, creating a cliffside. Electricity was cut to about 29,000 households and water to about 500 others, though services were mostly restored by Saturday night.

”I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move,” said Akiko Kikusawa, 82, who was among about a dozen people at an evacuation center near one of the worst-hit cities, Kurihara in northern Miyagi prefecture (state). ”But I’m among the lucky ones, the other people here lost their homes.”

Hundreds of other people also took refuge in other affected areas, though damages in the cities were limited because the quake struck mostly rural mountainous areas.

At a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, the jolt splashed 5 gallons of radioactive water from two pools storing spent fuel, operators said. Trade and Industry Ministry official Yoshinori Moriyama, however, said there was no leakage outside the plant.

The three dead included a man who ran out of a building in fear and was hit by a passing truck, another man buried in a landslide while fishing, and a construction worker who was hit by a falling rock at a dam, officials said.

The 8:43 a.m. quake was centered in the northern prefecture of Iwate, and was located about 5 miles underground. It was felt as far away as Tokyo.

”It shook so violently that I couldn’t stand still. I had to lean on the wall,” said Masanori Oikawa, an Oshu city official who was at home near the epicenter when the quake struck. ”When I rushed to the office, cabinets had been thrown onto the floor and things on the desks were scattered all over the place.”

The quake also knocked down equipment and car parts at the Iwate factory of Kanoto Auto Works Ltd., a Toyota Motor Corp. subsidiary that assembles the popular Corolla and other models, company spokeswoman Seiko Watanabe said. The company has not decided whether to resume production Monday.

A semiconductor subsidiary of Fujitsu Ltd. halted production ”as a precaution” but there was no major damage to the building or equipment, said company spokesman Yasuhiko Youdou.

Rescuers said their top problem was the fractured road system, which stopped them from reaching isolated hamlets in the damage zone. Hundreds of people in several isolated towns with disrupted roads were waiting for rescuers to arrive.

”We’re getting growing reports of damage, but we can’t even get out there to assess the situation with roads closed off because of landslides,” said Norio Sato, a city official in one of the hardest-hit towns, Kurihara.

In that town, a landslide buried 15 construction workers. Twelve managed to dig themselves out, but three were still missing. Four people at Komanoyu hot springs were also missing after a separate landslide hit the resort, said another city official, Katsuyuki Sato.

Nearly nine hours after the quake hit Kurihara, Marue Supermarket manager Kikuchi Kazuya was still cleaning up amid fear of aftershocks.

”A lot of liquor bottles fell on the floor,” he said, adding that he has kept the store open for customers who need supplies. The quake ”was really scary, and I’m worried as we continued to feel many aftershocks.”

The Defense Ministry dispatched a dozen helicopters and patrol aircraft to the region to conduct flyovers and assess the extent of damage. The government also sent a CH-47 helicopter carrying Disaster Minister Shinya Izumi to the region.

Local governors were asking for more troops.

Footage shot from media helicopters showed landslides on rural roads running along knots of mountains separated by long stretches of rice fields. Footage aired on national broadcaster NHK also showed a bridge that collapsed. NHK said four people were seriously injured while riding on a bus over a bridge when the quake hit, but it was unclear whether it was the same one.

Footage from the closest large city, Sendai, showed the force of the quake shook surveillance cameras for 30 seconds. Still, Sendai appeared largely unscathed.

”So far we have not received any reports of damage or injuries. Everything is normal,” Hideki Hara, a police official in Sendai, told the AP. ”Phone lines, water and electricity are all working right now.”

Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the world. The most recent major quake in Japan killed more than 6,400 people in the city of Kobe in January 1995.

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