Quake triggers fires, halts production in JapanTokyo (AFP) March 12, 2011 - Major Japanese manufacturers including Toyota and Sony have been forced to suspend production at some sites following the country's huge earthquake and tsunami. More than 1,000 people were likely to have died in the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan on Friday, unleashing huge tsunamis along its Pacific coast, Kyodo News agency said. The Cosmo Oil Co. refinery in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, caught fire, leading to a large explosion shortly after 5:00 pm (0800 GMT), and the blaze was still raging late on Friday night after five liquefied petroleum gas storage tanks were burnt, the company said.
A major explosion hit a petrochemical complex in the northeast city of Sendai hours after the earthquake, media reports said. Television images showed huge orange balls of flame rolling up into the night sky as fires raged around the complex. Toyota, the world's largest automaker, said it had suspended production at four sites operated by subsidiaries in the northeast prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate and on the northern island of Hokkaido. Nissan said it had halted operations at four plants, with small fires breaking out at a facility in tsunami-hit Fukushima and Kawachi County that had since been extinguished. It said two employees had suffered injuries.
The automaker said planned weekend operations at the five sites had been cancelled and the potential restart of work on site Monday would be decided after a "study of the whole situation, including with suppliers" on Saturday. Sony Corp suspended production at its six plants in Miyagi Prefecture, which was hard hit by the quake, and neighbouring Fukushima Prefecture, it said, adding it has evacuated all employees there. "It may be several days before the costs of the disaster are clearer," British consultancy Capital Economics warned in a study, a view echoed by counterparts elsewhere. Hours after the quake struck, government officials and the Bank of Japan pledged to do what was necessary to pay for the reconstruction work that will be required and to deal with the possible economic fallout from the disaster.
Obama offered condolences in a telephone call to Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan and promised "whatever assistance is needed."
"We currently have an aircraft carrier in Japan, and another is on the way," Obama told a White House news conference. He said another ship was heading to US territories in the Mariana Islands to "assist as needed."
"My understanding is that the main assistance that we're going to be able to provide them is lift capacity: the ability for us to help in the cleanup," Obama said.
A Pentagon spokesman said the two carriers were the USS George Washington, which is based at Yokosuka near Tokyo, and the USS Ronald Reagan, which was en route to South Korea for exercises and has been redirected to Japan. The Reagan is normally accompanied by a guided missile cruiser and a destroyer squadron.
In Washington, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said it had dispatched a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and mobilized rescue teams from Los Angeles County and Fairfax County, in northern Virginia.
Each team has about 72 personnel, dogs and some 75 tons of rescue equipment.
USAID spokeswoman Gina Jackson said that the DART team is made up of Americans already in Asia. "It is a mix of people, including some coming back from New Zealand," where they helped after the Christchurch earthquake, she said.
The DART team will arrive in Japan in the next days, but it was still unclear where exactly they will go, Jackson told AFP.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile said the US government "has offered immediate disaster relief assistance," and is "working closely" with the Japanese government to provide further help.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, currently in the Middle East, said the US military stood ready to help Japan.
"We obviously have huge sympathy for the people of Japan and we're prepared to help them in any way we possibly can," Gates told reporters after arriving in Bahrain.
Calling it a "huge disaster," Gates said initial reports suggested no US military troops were killed or US equipment seriously damaged in the tsunami.
At the Pentagon, spokesman David Lapan said US forces in the Pacific "are assessing the situation and positioning forces so we are ready to respond and provide disaster relief if requested."
Defense Department resources include two amphibious assault ships -- the USS Essex and the USS Boxer -- along with various support vessels. Both assault ships are equipped with helicopters and airplanes.
The Boxer Amphibious Ready Group is currently at sea en route to a scheduled replenishment in Guam, while the Essex, carrying the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, arrived in Malaysia on Friday and was making preparations for an immediate departure toward Japan.
Another ship, the USS Blue Ridge, a command and control ship, arrived in Singapore and was preparing to depart Saturday, while the USS Tortuga, currently in Sasebo, Japan, is loading up boats used to transport equipment and troops to the shore and could depart later in the day.
Outside of Japan, high waves caused two submarines to break their mooring lines in Guam, but tug boats responded quickly and crews moored them to the pier, the Navy said.
In California, officials ordered the USS Dubuque, docked south of Los Angeles, out into open water as a precautionary measure due to the tsunami racing across the Pacific.