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Devastating Earthquake Rocks Japan; Setback for Anti-Gadhafi Forces

Aired March 11, 2011 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following the breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM: Japan reeling from a monumental natural disaster, the most powerful earthquake in its history, followed by a killer tsunami.

This is what it looked like when the 8.9 quake struck Japan mid- afternoon Friday, shock, fear, horror in a country all too familiar to earthquakes, then, a wave of death, a 30-foot-high wall of water sweeping across fields and highways and towns, this tsunami reaching as far as six miles, 10 kilometers inland.

In the latest developments, Japanese media report hundreds of people dead, hundreds more missing. It's feared the death toll will reach more than 1,000. There have been dozens of aftershocks and two more strong earthquakes have struck. More tremors could follow.

Authorities are also struggling to cool down a nuclear reactor shaken by this earthquake. Officials may release radioactive steam to try to reduce the pressure at the reactor.

Joining me now this hour, CNN International's Kristie Lu Stout. She's joining us from our bureau in Hong Kong.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world for our breaking news coverage of this earthquake catastrophe in Japan. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Kristie, as we watch this aftermath of this earthquake and tsunami, the devastating wall of water up to 30 feet high, it's erasing everything in its path. This is so, so heartbreaking.

And I fear, Kristie, that the devastation that we will see in the coming hours will be so much worse now that it's daylight, after 8:00 a.m., in Japan right now, and the situation is only going to be underlined as going from bad to worse.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: That's right. It's 7:00 a.m. here in Hong Kong. It's 8:00 a.m. there in Japan.

And very soon, we're going to get a much more clear picture of the devastation there. And, Wolf, I just want to describe to you the feeling here in the newsroom when we watched live those pictures, the aerial footage from Sendai of that wave of water crashing through Sendai, the town just 130 kilometers away from the epicenter of that earthquake, and watching that torrent just sweep away the dirty debris, the water there, the wall of water up to 30 meters high sweeping away cars, ships, homes, entire communities.

Utter devastation. Now, it is a sea of liquid destruction, water, mud and debris. And the earthquake was horrible. But in the end, the damage from the tsunami may be far, far worse.

Lisa Sylvester is looking into that.

BLITZER: We're going to get to Lisa shortly, Kristie. She has a special report for us.

But let's show the viewers some of these pictures once again that are so, so heartbreaking, so devastating. And as you see these pictures, you see the cars, you see the devastation, you can only imagine the people who have been killed by this earthquake and tsunami, the people who have been injured and the hundreds if not thousands who are still missing.

We have seen various reports. We have seen various reports of a lot of people who are missing, whole towns simply leveled, areas near the epicenter that have been destroyed. And these are aerial shots courtesy of our affiliate. This is TV Asahi.

Paula Hancocks is in Japan. She's been watching the situation.

As it's now daylight over all of Japan, Paula, we can only appreciate the devastation more and more. But what are you seeing, what are you hearing there?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you say, it is 8:00 in the morning. The sun came up just a couple of hours ago. And it would have been the first chance to really see what kind of devastation there was.

Now, it's very difficult to tell you exactly how bad the devastation is because quite frankly we don't know yet. Nobody knows. We know the Japanese prime minister, Kan, is in a helicopter. He's touring the area to assess for himself just how bad his people have been hit.

And he's also going to the Fukushima nuclear power plant to make sure that that is not going to have any radiation leaks. There's been some serious concern about the reactor there not cooling. And he's going to be going to that particular area.

But this will really be one of the first chances for many of the emergency crews to get on the ground for the first time. It's almost impossible to do that when it's pitch black, when you don't know what you're seeing on the ground.

And certainly people would have had a horrendous night waiting for those emergency crews. And it's very difficult for them to get there. I am currently at one of the airports trying to fly north. It's very difficult. Aid agencies here trying to fly north, they can't get there as well. And of course, with the telecommunications out at the moment in the worst-affected area , it is just making a very difficult job so much harder -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's probably only going to be possible with helicopters to get anywhere close, since these runways in these areas, these airports in the north where this devastation has occurred, I'm sure these runways are not suitable right now for planes to land. So it's going to be an issue, what the president of the United States spoke about, the lift capacity to get help, to get water, food, medicine to the areas. It's going to be a huge, huge problem.

Paula stand by. Kristie has a question for you as well.

STOUT: OK, Paula, we're looking at these live pictures from our affiliate TV Asahi, these new pictures. It is now 8:00 a.m. local time there on Sunday, the area most affected by the tsunami waves generated from yesterday's massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

Can you tell us more about Sendai, the area? We know that because of its proximity to the epicenter, it was very much affected, but was it also very much affected because of the low-lying terrain?

HANCOCKS: Well, certainly that will play into it.

But it's also it's one of the highly populated areas of that particular prefecture. Now, there's probably a million people that live in Sendai at one any time, but around 20,000 to 30,000, we understand, if not more, were evacuated.

And the thing that officials will be very interested to see is whether or not their warning and their telling people to evacuate immediately was actually heeded. If it was, many more lives will be saved. Now, the Japanese are not strangers to earthquakes. They're not strangers to tsunami warnings, but they do take them very seriously.

But the fact there was only about 15 minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami hitting. It really is a case of how many people were able to get out of the area in time. But as you say, it is a very low-lying a very flat area, which is why we're seeing those pictures from yesterday and we could see just how quickly and how water could move, and just how devastating it was carrying all that debris.

STOUT: There are a number of nuclear power plants in the affected area. A state of emergency is in effect at one power plant. How will that complicate the relief effort?

HANCOCKS: Well, certainly, it's never going to help, anything like that.

I mean, it is going to be a consideration in the back of everybody's mind. The prime minister is touring that area at the moment. That is his first port of call. So obviously that is his first concern to make sure that there isn't a radiation leak, to make sure that there is no danger to people who are living in that neighborhood. Now, we know that at least 3,000 people, some are saying now 10,000 people, could have been evacuated from around the power plants, at least 3,000, some saying 10,000 -- sorry, three to 10 kilometers have been cleared as well to make sure that nobody is close by, because it is just an added problem and certainly it's something that the prime minister is taking very seriously.

And it's his number-one priority at this point. But the emergency teams themselves, they are looking to help the people, they are looking to get aid on the ground. And of course it has to come from the air.

STOUT: Well, Paula Hancocks joining us live from Osaka.

Let's take it back to Wolf.

BLITZER: We will be going back to Paula.

Kyung Lah, our other correspondent, is in Japan as well. Plus, we're establishing contact, Kristie, with several other people who have suffered throughout these hours in the aftermath of this earthquake and tsunami.

The tsunami hit along Japan's Pacific coastline, causing massive, massive amounts of damage. We're showing you the pictures. The pictures are so devastating.

Lisa Sylvester has been going through some of these images for us.

So, Lisa, tell our viewers more about what has happened over these past 17, 18 hours in Japan.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, you might not think of water as being such a powerful force, but when you look at these waves crashing into homes, crashing into buildings, essentially just sweeping everything in its path away, these are very powerful pictures that we want us all now to take a look at.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): Unbelievable video from Japan of the raging water coming right at you, large houses and buildings pushed out of the way, waves crashing on top.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A tsunami engulfing the whole port area, so long as we can see.

SYLVESTER: The force of the water toppled cars off bridges. Watch as the water swiftly blankets this farmland. Houses are submerged. You see someone here waving a white cloth out of a window of an upper floor, hoping to be rescued.

The Japanese city of Sendai bore the brunt. Fires broke out. The airport is now submerged in water. Those lucky enough made it to the roof, where they now wait. YASUO TANAKA, KOBE UNIVERSITY: Sendai City has a population of 1.03 million people. And also Sendai City is located in a very flat area. So, it must have been shaken. So, I'm really kind of afraid of next -- tomorrow.

SYLVESTER: The 8.9-magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami. Witnesses describe watching the earth roll beneath them.

HARRIS PAYTON, WITNESS: The whole ground was shaking so much. It was unreal. I can't describe it. It's just -- it was -- it felt like someone was just pulling you back and forth, like, side to side as hard as they could.

SYLVESTER: A tsunami occurs when an earthquake displaces rock at the bottom of the ocean, pushing rock up to the surface, forming a powerful wave. Boats on the open water are less affected. But the waves move at supersonic speed, colliding with the coastline.

TOM O'ROURKE, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: There's devastation as the wave comes in, but as the wave then goes back out, there's very severe erosion and flow of water in a backwards direction. You get the water coming in with great velocity and force picking up all sorts of debris and washing it ashore, and you get a lot of debris and material going in the opposite direction back out which is just as destructive as the incoming wave.

SYLVESTER: This tsunami showed its power as it moved across, wiping the land and everything on it clean.


SYLVESTER: You know, Wolf, also, some of those waves got as high as 20 to 30 feet. We saw a number of the people who were stranded on top of those buildings, and now that rescue effort is only just beginning, Wolf.

BLITZER: What amazing, devastating pictures. Thank you very much for sharing that with our viewers here in the United States and around the world, Lisa Sylvester.

Kristie is with us in Hong Kong.

Kristie, as we show our viewers some live pictures that we're getting in now from our affiliates in Japan, I want our viewers to take a look at the destruction. It's now 8:12 a.m. Saturday morning in Japan right now. And you can see what has happened, these buildings, these structures simply destroyed as a result of the earthquake, followed by the tsunami.

It's heartbreaking to think about the people who may have been inside those buildings. And you multiply this image that we're seeing by hundreds, if not thousands, you begin to appreciate the destruction of what has occurred.

STOUT: Yes, we're getting a very, very clear picture of the devastation as a result of that 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the deadly tsunami that followed.

Now, let's remind our viewers that Sendai, which is just 120 kilometers away from the epicenter of the quake, was an agricultural community. But if you look at these live pictures, this live aerial video coming in this morning, as we are finally getting a look at what the devastation looks like to us, it is water.

You do not see fields. You do not see green areas. You see water; you see homes clearly destroyed. Just a moment ago, it looked like naked foundations where homes once stood, so just underscoring the power of the torrent, being able to just throw aside everything that was in its way, homes, cars, ships, entire communities. This is really heartbreaking to look at -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's amazing. And we're not going to leave this story, because the images are only coming in. We're beginning to get a lot more of these images. Look at this from our affiliate NHK. You can see what is going on, the water surrounding these structures in the northern part of Japan.

We will get back to that. There is also, by the way, Kristie, some breaking news out of Libya that we're following. Ben Wedeman is going to be following us in a moment. I want to update our viewers on that, because it's important that we not neglect what's going Libya as well. We will check in with Ben Wedeman in a moment.

We will stay on top of the story, the earthquake, the tsunami, the fallout in Japan, much more of the breaking news in THE SITUATION ROOM coming up after this.


STOUT: Live from CNN Hong Kong, I'm Kristie Lu Stout.

And we continue our coverage of the devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan and the equally devastating, even more devastating tsunami that was unleashed afterwards.

Let's bring up for you these dramatic pictures of the tsunami, the tsunami there in Sendai, the area in northeastern Japan most affected by the earthquake. You're looking at the torrent of water just pushing everything away out of its path, cars, ships, homes -- on top of the that bridge, you can see cars and individuals trying to get away from the torrent there.

When we were watching these pictures live in our newsroom yesterday, there was a hush here as we looked at the aerial footage and was trying to make sense of just the utter devastation, human, physical, utterly devastating, the death toll still unclear, as it is now 8:17 a.m. in the morning in Japan. Emergency crews only just now rushing to the scene to get a clearer sense of what is needed to offer help on the ground.

Now, let's go to our Wolf Blitzer back in Washington for breaking news in another part of the world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kristie, stand by for a moment. We're going to go right back to Japan.

But there's breaking news out of Libya right now, apparently, a huge setback for opposition forces to Gadhafi.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is on the phone for us from Eastern Libya.

Ben, update the viewers.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's just after 1:00 a.m. in the morning here.

And what is going on appears to be a massive retreat by the rebel forces from their positions around Ras Lanuf and also Brega. We -- just one hour ago, people were banging on our door in the house we were staying in, in Brega saying that the Libyan army is on the way, that Gadhafi forces are advancing eastward.

And what I'm seeing now -- I'm at the main checkpoint to the east of the town of Brega -- and I'm seeing car after car and pickup after pickup of anti-Gadhafi fighters heading eastward, heading away from the front lines, where today we saw in Ras Lanuf there was an intense and sustained bombardment by Libyan armed forces on their positions.

They clearly have been outgunned. They simply don't have the firepower to match it. And now they are streaming away as far as they can from those apparently advancing Libyan forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of U.S. officials have suggested to me their fear that with much of the world now focused in on this earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Ben, Gadhafi is going to simply unleash his military, his troops, and they're going to launch a major offensive to crush the rebels, while much of the world is looking at another part of the world.

Is that the fear that the rebels, that the opposition forces have right now as well?

WEDEMAN: That's one of the many fears that they have, that the world, that the international community is completely distracted, and this was an ideal opportunity for Libyan forces to move ahead, to press the advantage of their superior firepower, their superior airpower to move forward.

And certainly that's what we saw today was, as I said before, this unrelenting bombardment. And we heard from Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of the Libyan leader, saying that, we're going to go east. And that appears to be what is going on right now.

Right now, I'm just looking at lines of cars passing through this checkpoint, civilians, as well as fighters, all of them fleeing away from what appears to be an advancing Libyan army.

BLITZER: Ben, what about Benghazi? That's been, shall we say, the capital, the second largest city of Libya, of the opposition forces, where the opposition has established itself, where France has now gone ahead and recognized this opposition as the legitimate government of Libya.

How secure, how safe are these opposition elements in Benghazi?

WEDEMAN: It's very difficult to say, actually, because what has happened is that many of the young men and many of the people with military experience from Benghazi streamed ahead, streamed hundreds of kilometers to the west, thinking that they were launching a campaign, an offensive that would allow them to go to Surt, Gadhafi's hometown, through Tripoli.

And now we see that they're all going in the opposite direction. So it's very difficult to really think with clarity that Benghazi is well defended, as most of the young men from that town are somewhere between the front lines and Benghazi.

It's a situation of chaos and confusion, of disorganization. They don't have communications. The cell phone system has been taken down. The only way I can talk to you right now is on this satellite telephone. And what I'm seeing is just a mad rush away from what appears to be the advancing Libyan army -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A huge setback obviously for the rebel forces, the opposition to Gadhafi.

We will check back with Ben Wedeman in Libya. Stand by.

We also want to stay on top of this disaster in another part of the world, namely in Japan, where there was an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, followed by a monster, monster tsunami. A lot of people are dead. Many more are injured. Many are still missing, the devastation only now becoming clear to the rest of the world, as it's daylight, approaching 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning in Tokyo.

We will continue our breaking news coverage from Japan. We're going to live to the scene right after this.


STOUT: Welcome back. You're watching our continued live coverage of the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami there in Japan.

It's now after 8:00 a.m. in the morning. We're getting finally a picture of what it looks like, the devastation on the ground. We're relying on our resources on the ground, from our affiliates, TV Asahi, to take a look at what it looks like the day after that massive, massive earthquake struck yesterday 2:26 p.m. local time.

Scenes there on your screen, I believe from Sendai, which is the community that was most affected by this earthquake, the community that was just 130 kilometers east of the epicenter, and also the community that was hit by the torrent of water that swept through this agricultural town of some one million people, just sweeping away cars, ships, homes, entire communities.

Wolf Blitzer is also here -- Wolf. BLITZER: We're watching all of this unfold, Kristie, from our vantage point in THE SITUATION ROOM and the feeds that are coming in from our affiliates in Japan, NHK, TV Asahi, others.

And look at this. This tsunami just devastated everything in its wake, the devastation reminding a lot of us of what happened in Indonesia, certainly Katrina. We see people standing on rooftops just waving to helicopters, begging, begging for assistance as we watch all of this unfold.

Chad Myers is watching it unfold as well for us.

But, before we go to Chad, I want to go back to Kristie.

Kristie, you have got a special guest who is there who will be telling us what he experienced.

STOUT: That's right.

In fact, it's a historian in Japan, scholar Karl Friday. He says the Tokyo office of IES Abroad, which runs oversee programs for American students. He joins us by phone on the line from Tokyo.

And, of course, we have been discussing the most affected area, Sendai, but Tokyo has been affected in a big way as well, a major metropolis, some, what, 12 13 million people who live there. The city has been in standstill, in paralysis since the quake struck yesterday. What is the situation this morning?


STOUT: Hello. Karl, can you hear me? This is Kristie in Hong Kong. Can you describe the situation in Tokyo now?

FRIDAY: Well, from our vantage point here, things look reasonably calm.

We're on the outskirts in Tokyo, in Chiba, just on the border into Tokyo proper. And this particular area, doesn't seem to have been a whole lot of visible damage outside. There's some major stuff in the not-too-far-way immediate area.


STOUT: Now, you just mentioned Chiba. A number of our viewers and myself, we recall that there was a fire at an oil facility in Chiba. Is that fire -- has that been extinguished by now?

FRIDAY: I have no idea. I'm only getting that from the TV. It's nothing I can see from here.

STOUT: OK. Can you describe what you can see from your vantage point, and, in particular, the issue of where people were able to stay last night? Mass transit lines, which is the lifeline of Tokyo, had to shut down on the back of this earthquake. So where were you, your colleagues, your friends? Where did you spend the night last night? FRIDAY: I spent the night here at the IES Abroad Center office. The -- most of the staff was able to get home.

Quite a few of the staff were actually off yesterday afternoon, which was good timing. We got lucky in that most of our students were -- are not in country at the moment, because we're between semesters. We only have six students on the ground. We were able to get ahold of them immediately. We have an emergency cell phone procedure in place, and we were able to contact everybody right away. Everybody is safe and secure.

Most of the students are in their dorms. A couple of them were out and about. One was caught in transit flying into the country. But everybody is safe and in good shelter for the night. I understand a good bit of Tokyo spent the night in train stations and public squares and gyms and things like that. The trains are just starting to run again. Here...

STOUT: Thank you for joining us abroad.

FRIDAY: Pardon me?

STOUT: Thank you very much for joining us to share with us your story from there in Tokyo. Let's go back to Wolf.

BLITZER: Kristie, the tsunami that's devastated the northern part of Japan, it still has an effect elsewhere around the world. Hard to believe. Chad Myers is joining us.

Chad, there are still some tsunami alerts, tsunami warnings out there. What's going on?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That would be for Chile, down here on the southern part of South America.

There's North America right there. Here would be Hawaii and then Australia. And the epicenter of the quake, a massive upheaval of the crust of the ground under the water that pushed the water up. That bubble of water had to move somewhere and put it into motion. Amazing animation from NOAA. It continued to move away from Japan. Eventually, about 9 a.m. this morning right through Lahina (ph) with a 9-foot wave, not even about a 7-foot wave.

Then we were watching and waiting for it to approach the West Coast. Crescent City, the marina there devastated with an 8-foot wave. That's eight feet up and then eight feet down below that. So a 16- foot difference. And the waves just pulled the docks and the boats all through that marina. It was pretty much devastating there.

We're going to take you through what else happened as the -- and why we didn't get a giant wave along the West Coast is because there again the epicenter. The energy of the wave was pushed to the south of us and not -- into the southeast. And not just to the east: toward the U.S. The energy was actually pushed down toward Chile. That's why there's a warning there now. It just took a long time for that wave to get there. The biggest wave through Midway and back out here. Some of this purple area there where there weren't any islands, thank goodness, could have had 30- or 40-foot waves. We know, though, that when the wave pushed back towards Japan, that there was a 30-foot wave there, at least somewhere.

Here's how it all works. The ground pushes. It's called a subduction zone. Two different plates. The plate goes down. This plate gets crushed together. And eventually, the two pieces of land that are pushing together can't push together any more, and one pops up.

And this one here, as it pops into the moisture into the water here, it has to go somewhere and eventually pushes the water up, and that bubble of water is the tsunami. Now, there was a lot of shaking. There was an awful lot of damage because of the shaking. But I would say at least 90 percent of the fatalities, if not more, if not almost 100, would be caused by that bubble or that wall of water that came onshore yesterday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chad, is there any -- any way to compare this earthquake tsunami disaster to what happened in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to other similar incidents around the world? I know this is the worst earthquake in the history of Japan, at least since they started recording it, 8.9 magnitude.

MYERS: Yes. You know, Banda Aceh at 9.1 and 9.0 and this being 8.9, not that much difference, really, in the amount of energy released. And this earthquake was only 45 miles away from the shore. And it was the preparedness of the Japanese people that made this -- and I know a thousand people are going to be killed in this. But compared to 230,000 people killed in that earthquake tsunami in 2004.

And all of the people that lived here, from Sendai all the way down to Cuba (ph), all of this area, there are a million people in the city here of Sendai, and they all -- they lived. They got out of the way. The water came in, but they were prepared for it.

And it's hard to imagine how only with 5 to 10 minutes' notice, people were able to get out of the way of the tsunami. They did it. It was daylight. Maybe that helped. Not in the middle of the night. People were awake. They knew what to do. They -- and they had a plan. And this country has a plan a plan for basically everything.

And that tsunami, although it should have been a killer more than it did, it moved on shore and moved off shore. And I know we're going to find more tonight and the numbers are going to rise, but this was -- this was a miracle that more people did not perish with an 8.9. Only five minutes away when it comes to a tsunami moving at 400 miles per hour.

BLITZER: When you think about the devastation in Haiti with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake...


BLITZER: ... and now an 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan. As bad as it is, as horrendous as it is, and it is awful, what you're saying is it could have been so much worse if the Japanese had not been prepared for these kinds of crises.

MYERS: Right. Of course it's a devastating event. There's no question about it. But a 7.0 compared to an 8.9 would be almost 500 times more powerful. More movement of the land compared to the Haiti earthquake. Well, the Haiti buildings were just not ready for that 7.0, where the Japanese island and the way that people build their cities and how they make their plants, they were ready for this, even though I guess you can never be ready for almost a 9.0 earthquake.

BLITZER: No, never.

All right, Chad. We'll check back with you.

I want to go back to the live pictures that we're seeing right now. Live pictures coming in from our affiliate. This is from TV Asai (ph) and NHK. You can see people still on those roofs. They're waving. They're desperately pleading for help right now, because all of those buildings surrounded now by water. They can't get out of those buildings. There's no power.

Fortunately, it's daylight. It's just after 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning there, but these people are begging for help right now. Kristie, as we watch what's going on, our heart goes out to all of these people who are stranded and are so desolate.

STOUT: Wolf, this is a heart-wrenching scene that we are witnessing live on our screens, courtesy of TV Asai (ph). Live pictures there of the tsunami survivors on the roofs of their buildings. They're surrounded by water. They're using whatever white cloth that they were able to find in that building to signal for help.

That helicopter was able to get that signal. Right now it is around 8:30 a.m. in the morning local time. Help is not there in Sendai yet. Help, rescue crews are still on their way, trying to get there. Look at that live on your screen.

A survivor. An earthquake and tsunami survivor spelling out the words. Did you see that? Spelling out the world "help". Issuing that world help to the entire world right now.

Again, it is 8:30 in the morning. Rescue crews on their way to Sendai. Some 17 1/2 hours since that massive earthquake struck. And here is the view from one CNN iReporter, who tells us about the moment when the earthquake struck, 2:22 p.m. local time yesterday.





STOUT: It is now some 18 hours since a magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Northeast Japan. It also unleashed massive tsunami waves, waves as tall as 30-feet-high sweeping through the agricultural community of Sendai.

We've been getting first pictures, first aerial video footage of what Sendai looks like this morning. It is now past 8:30 a.m. local time. Rescue crews are on their way there. And what we see is a land deluged with water. Now, these are taped pictures of the tsunami arriving and just sweeping through the land. Right now you're looking at what we're seeing this morning.

It is roughly 8:42 in the morning local time there in Sendai. You can see quite clearly it is just a water-sogged area. What was once agricultural land, home to one million people, now is a disaster zone.

Water was one threat. And fire, it was another. A refinery fire in one town sent thick, black smoke into the sky. Despite a series of aftershocks, one iReporter captured the explosion on tape and sent us this video.


AUGUST ARMBRUSTER, IREPORTER: Here's some of the aftershocks which caused a fire at the chemical plant to blow up. You can't see that clearly, but there's a big fire right over there.

Oh, it just blew up. Woo! Woo! This is crazy! Oh. Let's go.

It's not done. It's not done. I'm going back in! Oh! Look at it. I'm back. I left, and it blew up again. I don't know what's going on, but I'm staying now, so, woo! Woo! I'm tired of running. I don't ever run. Dang! This is wild, yo.

I'm on the street. I'm out on the street. I feel like Tom Cruise. All right. Coming to you live. It's bad, man. I can't believe the plant blew up. That's horrible.


STOUT: And joining us now is the man who shot that video, August Armbruster. He joins us live from Ishihara. August, can you walk us through the moments leading up to that explosion that you caught on tape?

ARMBRUSTER: OK. I was in my house with my family. And this is after the earthquake and the aftershocks have kind of subdued a little bit. And we hear a great boom in the distance. And we go outside, and the sky is lit bright orange for about a few seconds. And the neighbors tell us that a power plant blew up.

And so I wanted to investigate. I was really curious. So I grabbed my camera and on adrenaline just ran over there.

STOUT: Has the fire been put out? Do you still smell smoke in the air?

ARMBRUSTER: No, the fire has been put out. It's contained now.

STOUT: OK. OK, that's good news. Now, can you walk us through the moment when the earthquake struck, roughly around 2 p.m. local time yesterday? Where were you? What did you experience?

ARMBRUSTER: I was actually babysitting my host brother and sister. And they were sleeping at the time, and the floor was shaking. And I wasn't sure what was going on. And then it escalated rather quickly. And actually, a bookshelf where the kids were sleeping actually started to tilt over. And I froze for a moment. I wasn't sure what to do. Then I got up quickly, and I grabbed it and put it against the wall. It almost fell over and crushed me. That was really scary. That was probably the worst part of the day for me.

They slept through the whole thing, though. I'm not sure how. But they were sleeping. But the house shook. It felt like the floor was supported by Jell-O. The house was wobbly. I've never experienced anything like that before.

STOUT: How are you and other survivors coping with the shock of disaster?

ARMBRUSTER: The Japanese here are very prepared for earthquakes. So they seemed fine. During the crisis, the community, just random Japanese people will just come together and talk, help out each other. I thought that was very awesome. It's a very good thing that shows just how much the Japanese care for their country and just for their countrymen. The Japanese are doing fine. Where I live, there is not that much damage besides the oil refinery.

STOUT: OK, August, we'll leave it at that. It seems like we've lost our connection with you, but thank you for sharing your story with us. And I'm very, very relieved to hear that you and your host family are safe.

That was August Armbruster joining us live from Ishihara. Also, an iReporter captured this stunning image of that explosion at an oil facility there just outside Tokyo. But of course, Wolf, we know that the focus, the epicenter of this story of devastation is in the northeast of Japan in Sendai.

BLITZER: That's a big city, Sendai. There's a million people there. So it's not just a little town in northeastern Japan. This is what it looked like in Sendai. All of a sudden the tsunami hit and you can see the water just destroying everything in its path, moving relentlessly going forward. These pictures are so heartbreaking to see this destruction. You've got to imagine that people were in those homes and those cars and working those fields.

It happened in mid afternoon in Tokyo Friday afternoon. And now, what, some 17, 18 hours later we're only beginning to appreciate what's going on. It's approaching 9 a.m. in Japan right now.

We have a lot more to cover. The president of the United States, President Obama, he spoke out about this, promising the Japanese people the U.S. would do whatever it could to help. We'll check in with the White House. We'll go back. More iReports coming in. Our correspondents in Japan are getting more eyewitness accounts of what's going on. We'll show you right after this.


BLITZER: Eight point nine magnitude earthquake followed by a huge monster, killer tsunami. This has been a devastating day for the people of Japan. The whole world is watching right now what's going on. We're only beginning to appreciate the destruction and the devastation as it's daylight.

Clearly moved by the tragedy, as well, President Obama today expressed his deep condolences to the people of Japan, and he vowed that the United States will do all it can to help. Our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is standing by with more -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, after answering a lot of questions about the kind of logistical help that the U.S. can provide Japan, it was the last question that President Obama took, 45 minutes into his briefing, where he discussed his emotional response to this disaster.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your personal feeling...

KEILAR (voice-over): It was a Japanese reporter who asked President Obama how the earthquake affects him on a personal level.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm heartbroken by this tragedy. I think when you see what's happening in Japan, you are reminded that, for all our differences in culture or language or religion, that ultimately, humanity is one.

KEILAR: President Obama has travelled to Japan twice during his presidency, and he said his response to the disaster is heightened by his connection to the people.

OBAMA: I have such a close personal friendship and connection to the Japanese people in part because I grew up in Hawaii where I was very familiar with Japanese culture that that just makes, you know, our concerns that much more acute.

KEILAR: The president's chief of staff woke him up at 4 a.m. to tell him about the quake in Japan. At 9:30 he received an in-depth briefing in the Oval Office. By 10:15 he was on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Kan offering assistance. Obama pushed back his previously scheduled news conference by an hour and a half in response to the quake, and he ended his briefing on an optimistic note.

OBAMA: I'm very confident, though, obviously, that the Japanese people are so resourceful. Japan is such a powerful economy and such an advanced economy technologically that Japan will successfully rebuild.


KEILAR: Now, specifically, President Obama said he expects Japan will need help when it comes to clean-up, heavy machinery that will be needed to lift debris, and he also said that U.S. Energy Secretary Chu is in touch with Japanese officials so that they can provide any assistance needed when it comes to potentially damaged nuclear power plants.

Now back to Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong.

STOUT: OK, Brianna. Thank you very much, indeed. U.S. President Barack Obama stands ready to help Japan deal with the aftermath of the quake, and it is mobilizing its forces.

Let's get straight to where CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence, who's in Coronado, California -- Chris.


The U.S. military has really shifted into a mode of full steam ahead when it comes to trying to help Japan deal with this crisis.

For example, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was already heading to that area, but it was supposed to do a training mission in Korea. It is now steaming as fast as possible to the waters off Honchu, Japan.

The USS Tortuga left its base in Setsebu (ph), Japan, with some landing craft on board. It's now going Korea, getting some cargo helicopters and then getting back as soon as possible.

Ships like the USS Blue Ridge is loading humanitarian aid. And the USS Essex with about 2,000 marines leaving Malaysia on its way, as well -- Kristie.

STOUT: All right. Chris Lawrence joining us live from Coronado, California. We will have much more ahead of the aftermath of that massive earthquake in Japan. Much more right after this.


BLITZER: Dramatic stories are coming out of Japan from Americans who have survived. Here's CNN's Mary Snow.


MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The way Janie Ludy tells it, her husband's escape from the Fukushima nuclear plant, in her words, sounded like hell on earth. She tells us her 52-year-old husband, Danny, reached her by a phone in Louisiana and told her he narrowly missed the tsunami, because he had difficulty getting out of the plant.

JANIE LUDY, HUSBAND IN JAPAN: He was wading through, and it sounded like a tough spot banging on a big piece of glass and whatever debris. He cut his feet up, which slowed him down. The lights kept blacking out. He said he had to slow down, and he was helping to pull a fuse out with him and that, if he would have been a little faster, the water came. And he said it was, like, 30 foot or more. It was just huge. And we could see in the water the homes and cars and just parts of businesses and whatever just going by, and that was his lucky moment he said, that he had missed that.

SNOW: Ludy says her husband told her he was able to get back to a hotel, but that, too, was badly damaged, and she said while they were talking, the ground kept shaking.

LUDY: You could hear the wind blowing, and the waves were coming. We've got to go to higher ground. So that's where they were headed: to go to higher ground and try to stay the night as much as they could in the van.

SNOW: Elsewhere in Fukushima this is what it looked like when the quake hit.

RYAN MCDONALD, IREPORTER: Oh, my God. That is the biggest earthquake. It is still going. Oh, my God. The building is going to fall.

SNOW: This video was shot by Ryan McDonald about 65 miles away from Sendai, which is close to the quake's epicenter. McDonald is an English teacher living in Japan for nine years and is no stranger to earthquakes.

MCDONALD: I have just grown accustomed to them because they happen so often, but this one didn't stop. It was sheer terror. I cannot even begin to imagine people closer to the epicenter and how -- how bad they felt.

SNOW: Because there are so many aftershocks, McDonald told us he spent part of the night sleeping in his car. He went to check on a nearby evacuation center, but it was packed. For now, he's bunking back in his apartment.

MCDONALD: This, this is a big bag of water, a five-pound bag of water. We just lined up, and they gave it to us. I have no water service in my apartment. I can't flush the toilet. I can't drink anything. I have no gas. I do have electricity. I have no phone. I have Internet.


SNOW: And Wolf, as for Danny Joe Ludy, the worker we told you about at the Fukushima nuclear plant, a spokesman at GE Hitachi nuclear energy says he is among 80 workers at the plant, including subcontractors. They are all accounted for and are safe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Mary, thanks very much. We're going to stay on top of this story.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.