3/11/11: Japan Tsunami: Towns Wiped Away

"Nightline" report from the first night of the March 2011 disaster in Japan.
3:00 | 09/08/14

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Transcript for 3/11/11: Japan Tsunami: Towns Wiped Away
The effort to sort through the massive disaster areas in northern Japan is just beginning and take a look at this. An aerial of -- around 24 hours ago was a town of 71000. People. Now completely under water no structure. Still standing. And Japanese media has just reported that authorities there have found two. To 300 bodies on a beach in Sendai the city near the epicenter of today's massive eight point nine magnitude quake. But that was just part of what has been a day of historic devastation. For this American ally. It is Saturday in Japan and -- nation all too familiar with earthquakes is still trying to grasp the most violent ever recorded in their land. The countryside is choked with smoke from fires that burned all night long. More than 400 -- dead almost a thousand still missing. Entire neighborhoods are under water. And the world watches as two nuclear reactors remain dangerously unstable. That the people not not as rescues Begin in Japan families back here in the states. Anxiously await any word on their loved ones. But it was this moment to 46 in the afternoon when Japan's nightmare began. The ground began to shake 32 million people here Tokyo brace themselves for the worst. -- eight point nine magnitude similar violently jolted the country. It was a thousand times stronger than the earthquake that struck Haiti. Large chunks of buildings fell to the streets and rushed for cover. The communication infrastructure so stressed the occasional phone -- -- Skype interview is the only way to get eyewitness accounts and. It started off as a shake and then really turn into more of a swaying. -- it just. You know things falling off shelves sentenced. This real sense of kind of nonsense sea -- so -- of people hurt. -- underneath if I didn't think at one point says I really might die here. The Japanese TV stations NHK offices across the country shook. I couldn't. He's spending -- so we instantly knew that this committee -- what you wish and that many of my colleagues went out of the peace table to protect themselves. In all corners of the country every -- life up ended this government ministry meeting in erupted. -- school children forced to run for their lives and airport. Workers cover their heads with security billions as -- earthquake brought down a huge shall -- Pillars toppled at a Buddhist temple. Fires burned across -- northern part of the country as gas lines ruptured. And this oil refinery was engulfed in massive flames. We'll start running out of nearby building. -- what you hooked up. You could say the skyscraper nearby worst way but -- to win. There was some by car. The most violent and terrifying. -- I have ever -- -- These trades wobbled on their tracks is eager to move below. Highways while clearing roadways -- -- how. -- -- aftershocks dozens of them went on for hours on the without special present large. Deny it and thought this was. But that you know amazement document the bagel and then it was a big one that this thing was so strong that it -- -- noted that -- Or worse. Meanwhile on the coast. Tsunami alarms blasted of the devastation yet to come. The 36 foot waves were relentless. -- consuming everything in their. Pulling this house right off its foundation. And watches it destroys an entire village while still burning fires ride the waves. You get a chilling sense of the enormity of -- all seeing this man on the back of his truck watching helplessly. As the destruction swirls around him. You're -- live footage of -- tsunami engulfing the port area upcoming city and he wanted -- this is what's happening right as we speak. Hundreds of cars were swept along the current. Boats tossed like bathtub toys. -- don't -- Devastated by the tsunami. Was the port city of Sendai. The closest city to the epicenter. Floodwaters consume the city's airport. -- runways underwater people sought refuge on the roof of the terminal. The quake triggered a state of emergency -- two of the country's nuclear reactors. With their cooling systems crashed eight China syndrome meltdown and radiation leaks are feared. Thousands within a six mile radius were evacuated and cooling agents were rushed in part of a desperate effort to avoid the worst. The clock is -- Every minute that passes become closer to the time when there could be a secondary earthquake. When a weakened -- finally gets gives way ruptures and all that cooling water believes onto the floor. But clock is -- it means that we have to get those back up generators on on site working as soon as possible. American Ryan McDonald shot this video oh my god. That is the biggest earthquake -- He was just 65 miles south -- dot. -- and sober -- crimes my apartments shaking violently. My apartment was just in shambles. Along. That actually started. Feeling like -- died. It is still going. Oh my god the building default I just program for the right Google groups restorers -- -- We do not have any food. Or very little -- This was a dinner. Cup noodles ends. The orange juice and that was it dyslexia eight and it was ago. Two hours ago. Our own. The only other -- the only the things I have a house like this happening -- tomato sales which I'm gonna make that works. You know that many houses a radical Syria flushed away so people lost the house this Opel sessions. Even they don't have anything you -- to -- -- drink or you don't duck cover themselves. Over tonight. Overnight the military loaded up supplies to be distributed but by morning the destruction was in full view. Tall buildings alone in a -- of water and debris many still stranded on rooftops. Older buildings traditional homes little more than splinters now. Cars ready to be shipped abroad are burning. And in the mountains near Nagano the ground crumbled beneath the railroad tracks. -- even fears about avalanche --

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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