A devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Tuesday, killing at least 65 people and collapsing buildings onto victims, some of whom used their cellphones to frantically call for help, officials said.
Rescuers dug through the rubble overnight amid reports that many people were still trapped and that the death toll could rise much higher.
A statement posted on the website of the Christchurch Police Department said the fatalities included “two buses crushed by falling buildings.” It said that “the central city is currently being evacuated, as reports are received of widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure. Multiple fatalities have been reported at several locations.”
Hours after the earthquake struck at 12:51 p.m. local time, the tourist center of 400,000 residents resembled a war zone, a city without electricity or running water in many areas.
“We have got tens of thousands of people who are very scared,” Mayor Bob Parker said at a news conference late Tuesday.
The temblor, the second to hit the city since September, struck during the lunch hour as the city center teemed with pedestrians. Several people were reportedly in the tower of the Christchurch Cathedral as its spire toppled. Photographs showed a large rescue effort at the crushed multistory building that housed the Pyne Gould Corp.
Television reports showed bodies being pulled from rubble; it was unclear whether any of them were alive. Footage showed bricks and shattered concrete from buildings strewn in the streets. Sidewalks and roads were cracked and split. Sirens blared as dazed and crying residents, their faces bloodied, wandered the streets or scurried as parts of damaged buildings continued to fall.
Some cars were buried under rubble, and rescuers threw chunks of concrete aside to reach survivors.
“Make no mistake -- this is going to be a very black day for this shaken city,” Parker said earlier.
As the sun set on the skittish city, officials warned residents to prepare for the worst. They said local rivers were being used as emergency waste-water zones.
“Do not shower, do not take a bath, do not flush your loo. Tomorrow we are going to smell a bit. Dig a hole in the backyard if that is what it takes, and save your water for drinking,” said Parker at the hastily called news conference, adding that the New Zealand air force would continue to bring aid in overnight.
“Our focus is on rescue,” he said.
Late Tuesday, victims were still being loaded into any available vehicle to get them to a hospital. Christchurch Hospital was closed for some time, but by later in the afternoon was coping well with the huge number of injuries.
The airport was expected to reopen Wednesday morning, but until then remained available only to air force flights and those flights bringing in emergency aid and rescue workers.
Sniffer dogs and victim-recovery teams were being brought in from Australia, and offers of assistance poured into Christchurch from around the world, including the United States.
For a time, large parts of the city were without electrical power or telephone services. Authorities ordered major hospitals nationwide to make room for victims.
The Christchurch Press newspaper reported that the initial quake was followed by constant aftershocks, some as powerful as magnitude 5.
Prime Minister John Key said at least 65 people had been killed. He rushed to the city after holding an emergency meeting with New Zealand lawmakers.
“To be honest, it’s pretty grim,” said Ian Stuart, a reporter for the New Zealand Press Assn. “The last earthquake in September didn’t kill anyone because people were home asleep when it struck. This one hit when the streets were filled with people. Some of them were calling emergency services and family members from their trapped places.”
The earthquake’s epicenter was reportedly 3 miles below ground about 12 miles southeast of Christchurch, a gateway city to New Zealand’s South Island. The Sept. 4 quake had a magnitude of 7.1 but its epicenter was deeper and it struck much farther from Christchurch, officials said. There have been thousands of aftershocks in the area following the September quake.
Stuart said unconfirmed reports put the death toll at more than 90, with estimates that it could reach as many as 1,000.
“The people of Christchurch were just believing they may be over the worst when the quake struck today,” Stuart said.
“There were screams from trapped people and others digging with their hands to free trapped people,” Stuart said. “I talked by phone with one woman who pulled her bed mattress on top of her. There are lots of old stone buildings in Christchurch, and lots of those collapsed.”
Before rushing to the scene, Key told New Zealand legislators that many details were still unknown.
“The worrying fear, of course, is that this earthquake has taken place at a time when people were going about their business -- it is a very populated time, with people at work, children at school,” he told parliament. “But we are aware of significant damage to buildings that had people in them at the time.”
Christchurch City Councilman Barry Corbett, who was on a top floor of a building when the quake struck, told reporters: “When the shaking had stopped, I looked out of the window, which gives a great view onto Christchurch, and there was just dust.”
“It was evident straight away that a lot of buildings had gone,” he said.
As midnight drew near on a devastating day, residents scampered to get out of town.
“It is very spooky and ghostly and not the Christchurch I know,” said one man.
Key said it may be one of the darkest days ever for the tight-knit island nation of just 4 million residents.
“I just want to sit down and cry now, it is just horrible” said Jamie Gough, a city councilor.