Kurihara, Japan Rescue teams using shovels and buckets tried today to dig their way to seven people believed trapped in a landslide at a hot springs resort after a deadly earthquake pounded the mountains of northern Japan, killing at least six and injuring more than 200.
The fire department squads worked as military helicopters buzzed overhead and frequent aftershocks posed the threat of the ground collapsing under their feet.
Saturday's 7.2-magnitude quake triggered several major landslides, blocking roads and stranding bathers at the hot spring resort, which is located in a heavily forested mountainous area outside the small city of Kurihara. Crews searching for the missing had to hike mountain trails and dig their way to the worst-hit areas.
"It was the worst quake I have ever felt," said Rinji Sato, whose grocery store in this town near the epicenter was a mess of shattered bottles and food thrown from shelves. "We were just lucky this didn't hit a big city."
Search teams have already recovered the bodies of six dead, but believe at least nine more may be missing. News reports put the number of injured at about 260.
Sato described the temblor as a sharp vertical jolt followed by a powerful sideways swaying.
"It was impossible to stay on your feet," he said.
The government responded quickly, mobilizing troops, police and fire department rescue teams to find and care for the injured and to recover the dead.
"Our most important task is to save as many lives as possible, and we are doing the best we can," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said.
Access, however, was a major obstacle.
The quake - followed by more than 200 aftershocks - buckled roads, including one highway that was severed when a stretch of land collapsed, turning it into a sudden drop-off.
Train service, water and electricity, which had been cut, was restored to most areas today. About 2,800 homes in Kurihara city were still without power, however.
More than 200 people - many of them near the hot springs - remained stranded today, and were being slowly flown out by helicopter.
"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 city official Norio Sato in Kurihara, one of the worst-hit cities in northern Miyagi prefecture (state).
At a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, about 60 miles away, the jolt splashed a small amount of radioactive water from two pools storing spent fuel. Trade and Industry Ministry official Yoshinori Moriyama said there was no leakage outside the plant.
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.
The 8:43 a.m. quake was centered about 5 miles underground in the prefecture (state) of Iwate. It was felt as far away as Tokyo, 250 miles to the southwest.