On this day in 1923, aftershocks and out-of-control fires continue to rock Tokyo, Japan, and the surrounding area following a massive earthquake. In total, 143,000 people died in the disaster, which is known both as the Great Kwanto Earthquake and the Great Tokyo Fire, as the fire caused by the earthquake was more deadly and destructive than the earthquake itself.
At about noon on September 1, an 8.3-magnitude quake, centered in Sagami Bay near Oshima Island, about 50 miles southeast of Tokyo, struck the area. The shaking continued for nearly five minutes, causing some buildings to collapse, including the 12-story Asakusa Tower, which split before giving way. There were innumerable fires in the immediate aftermath. As it was lunchtime, many people in the area were cooking food over hibachis when the earthquake hit and the overturned hibachis caused thousands of small fires in traditional Japanese wooden homes. Along the coast, many of these fires were put out by the 40-foot tsunami that came ashore in several locations.
Hundreds of aftershocks continued into the next day and exacerbated the situation. There were so many fires in Tokyo that the conditions produced tornadoes of fire. As the blazes sucked in tremendous amounts of oxygen, literal windstorms of fire swept the city. The resulting dense clouds of carbon dioxide were deadly. Approximately 30,000 people died at a park near the Sumida River from the fumes. Meanwhile, efforts to fight the fires were largely futile because the water mains were broken by the shaking and roads were blocked. Thousands of people, though, were saved when the Empress of Australia cruise ship carried them out to sea and away from the fires.
In the end, thousands of square miles were devastated. Eighty percent of the nearby city of Yokohama was destroyed, as well as approximately 60 percent of Tokyo. The Imperial University Library, housing some of the oldest and rarest books and art in the world, was lost. The Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, sank two feet into the ground but still managed to stand. About 9,000 factories were destroyed, causing damage to the region’s economy that lasted years after the earthquake. Compounding the tragedy, some Japanese blamed Korean immigrants for the fires and killed hundreds of innocent people in the days following the disaster.