“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.”
These are TIME photographer James Nachtwey‘s words describing what he saw in Kesennuma City, north of Sendai, in a conversation during the assignment.
He arrived in Japan less than 2 days after the earthquake struck last Friday and began documenting the devastation of the aftermath. These are his haunting pictures.