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Japan earthquake: Eyewitness accounts capture Japan's tsunami after earthquake

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Kyodo News/AP

(Read caption) Earthquake-triggered tsunamis sweep shores along Iwanuma in northern Japan on Friday, March 11. The magnitude 8.9 earthquake slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, unleashing a 13-foot (4-meter) tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland.

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An 8.9-magnitude earthquake rocked northeast Japan on Friday afternoon local time, prompting a tsunami that sent 30-foot waves ashore along the country's northeast coast.

A Bloomberg television report filed about five hours after the earthquake reports that it was one of the most powerful to ever hit Japan. However, it appears to be nowhere near as destructive as the 9.3-magnitude earthquake that shook Indonesia – the second-largest in recorded history – and prompted a tsunami that killed more than 300,000 people in over a dozen countries.

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The epicenter of the earthquake today was 80 miles off the coast of Sendai in northeast Japan and it generated tsunami waves up to three miles inland. The tremor was felt in Tokyo as well.

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"[The wave] was mixed with mud, with ships and cars smashing toward wooden houses, dragging those into rice fields, and basically bashing them into pieces," the Bloomberg reporter said.

The initial 8.9 earthquake was followed by aftershocks measuring 7.1, 6.5, and 6.4 in magnitude. Tsunami warnings are in effect for much of the Pacific Rim.

One oil refinery went up in flames about 40 miles outside Tokyo, 11 nuclear plants were shut down and a nuclear emergency was declared for one because its emergency cooling systems stopped working. Officials there say the situation is under control and there's no danger of fallout.

CNN reports that casualty estimates are still coming in, but between 200 and 300 people have already been found dead in the city of Sendai alone.

Footage from CNN shows houses caught on fire moving with the tsunami. The wave moved toward Hawaii at an estimated speed of 500 miles per hour.

"There's nowhere to run when you have something like coming so fast toward you," the CNN reporter said.

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An American living in Tokyo for the past several years called the earthquake a "tremor to remember" in an interview with CNN

"We were completely unprepared for this.... All of a sudden bam, it just hit. You could tell this was different instantly from other little tremors we've had before. It just picked up in intensity."