Pacific islanders shaken up

The Associated Press

TOKYO A major undersea earthquake killed at least 16 people in Russia's remote Kuril Islands late Tuesday, jolted Japan and triggered fears of tidal waves on both sides of the Pacific.

A quake with a preliminary magnitude of at least 7.9 hit near the sparsely populated Kuril Island chain north of Japan. At least 176 people in northern Japan were injured by broken glass and falling objects, but only three of the injuries were considered serious.

A 6.0 magnitude aftershock was felt early Wednesday in the same area. There were no immediate reports of additional damage or injuries.

The first quake sent 10-foot-high tidal waves smashing into the Kurils, destroying moorings and hurling small boats onto land. But the waves were smaller and less destructive farther from the epicenter.

By early Wednesday, about 40 small tsunami waves had been observed in Japan. Most were less than 3 feet high, although one was 6 feet. There were no reports of any damage.

Hawaii closed its public schools and beaches early Tuesday and ordered residents of coastal areas to evacuate. But the waves reached only 18 inches and the tsunami warning was lifted Pacific-wide about six hours later.

In Moscow, Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations said the bodies of at least 16 people were found on three islands in Kuril chain. Most were killed by falling debris, ministry spokesman Anatoly Streltsov said.

In some parts of the Kurils, 18-inch cracks were visible in the earth after the quake, Streltsov said.

Viktor Sankov, spokesman for Russia's regional government on Sakhalin Island, said all of the dead were believed to be Russian military.

Telephone service to the Kurils was cut off, and an airport in the town of Burzvestnik on hard-hit Iturup island was badly damaged and closed, authorities said.

Yevgeny Krasnoyarov, governor of the Kurils region, spoke to the islanders by radio and urged them not to panic.

About 50,000 Russians, including several thousand troops, live in the southern Kurils.

Three large cargo planes carrying rescue workers and equipment were headed for the disaster area from Moscow and Siberia, Sankov said.

Japanese authorities said an air force plane sent to survey damage was missing with two pilots aboard.

The initial quake which lasted more than a minute was centered 13 miles beneath the Pacific Ocean floor, near the southern end of the Kuril chain. Japan's Central Meteorological Agency estimated the quake's prelimary magnitude at 7.9, making it the strongest to hit the region in 26 years.

The National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colo., estimated the quake at 8.2. It is common for preliminary estimates of an earthquake's magnitude to differ.

Most of the damage and injuries in Japan occured on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, which is lightly populated, but buildings shook as far as 650 miles away in Tokyo.

On Hokkaido, the late-night quake cracked roads, caused gas leaks and flooded streets. One fire was reported in the town of Nemuro, and more than 13,460 households lost electric power, said Kazuhiro Kojima of Hokkaido Electric Co.

One elderly man im the city of Obihiro died of a heart attack, but authorities did not immediately attribute his death to the quake.

Television stations broadcast warnings for people in low-lying areas to flee, showing maps of Japan with endangered areas flashing in red.

"I feared that my house might collapse. The house was shaken strongly," said Teruo Koike, a fireman in Kushiro.

Kiyo Takahashi, 45, of Kushiro, was drinking coffee with friends. "Some of them cried for help ... because they couldn't stand the strong shaking," she said.

More than 1,000 evacuees spent the night in public buildings in Kushiro and Nemuro alone, according to local officials.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued a tidal wave warning for all Pacific islands and coastal areas, including the west coast of the United States and Canada.

But the waves dissipated as they crossed the Pacific and the warning was cancelled about six hours later.

A 1-foot tsunami wave was spotted Tuesday afternoon in the western Aleutians, about 1,000 miles east of Hokkaido, said Paul Whitmore, a geophysicist at the Alaska Tsnuami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska.

He said the wave receeded as it moved east and was not considered dangerous. Tsunamis are generally not considered threatening to coastal areas until they reach 3 feet, Whitmore said.

Some precautionary evacuations had been made from Sand Point and Dutch Harbor, low-lying island villages off Alaska's western peninsula. The Coast Guard moved a cutter into deep water at Kodiak and sent some of its planes into the air from Air Station Kodiak as a precaution, said Coast Guard Lt. Ray Massey in Juneau, Alaska.

In Canada, British Columbia's northern coastal communities and those on the west coast of Vancouver Island were put on alert for most of the day. The warning was cancelled about six hours after it was issued.

The quake was the strongest to hit Japan since a tremor of 7.9 preliminary magnitude hit Hokkaido in 1968, killing 68 people. The largest quake to hit before then was an 8.2 quake in 1952, also in Hokkaido, that killed 33 people.

Kushiro was struck by an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on Jan. 15, 1993. That quake killed one person and injured more than 600.

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