There were desperate appeals for help from a hospital rooftop where a group of people gathered as a helicopter flew overhead.
It is hard to talk of a rescue operation when not just buildings, but whole villages in Japan have either been swept away or are almost inaccessible.
Even in a developed country more prepared than any for earthquake disaster – the scale of the damage is overwhelming.
One woman, still in her car washed up among the debris, said she had tried to drive to safety but was caught in the waves.
It is among the first of what people hope will be more individual survival stories.
But other reports appear to confirm the worst. The Japanese army is said to have found the bodies of 300-400 tsunami victims in the port of Rizukentakata north of Sendai.
A shop owner at Oarai just 100 kilometres north of Tokyo said the water rose up all of a sudden and swept inland – then retreated back.
A woman said the quake scattered objects from people’s homes, including a washing machine, right down the road.
It shows the tsunami’s impact was felt a long way down the coast from the north, towards the Japanese capital.
More than 200,000 people are reported to have fled their homes.
Thousands of army troops and hundreds of planes and ships have been mobilised to help in the mammoth relief operation.
Other countries around the Pacific basin were spared as the tsunami petered out.
Some, including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea are already reported to have despatched rescue teams to Japan.