When the earthquake struck Japan on 2:46 p.m. JST Friday, March 11, TIME photographer James Nachtwey was at home in Thailand. In less than 48 hours, he arrived in Japan and made his way north of Sendai to Kesennuma City, where he began documenting the catastrophic devastation while under the looming fear of possible nuclear contamination. In a conversation during the assignment, Nachtwey described what he saw.
“The scale of this is beyond belief. Any one town would be a major disaster if it had been just one town that it happened to. It would be unbelievable. This happened to every town from south of Sendai all the way to the northern end of Honshu. The entire coastline, town after town after town. It’s just apocalyptic. And it all happened between—what? How long did the actual wave to come in and go out? Half an hour? It was just a very brief span of time. the ocean just destroyed—obliterated—a huge coastal area of Japan. Heavily populated. Every town is just wiped out. Flattened.”