A strong earthquake killed at least 65 people in New Zealand’s -second-biggest city of Christchurch yesterday, with more casualties expected as rescuers worked into the night to find scores of people trapped inside collapsed buildings.
It was the second quake to hit the city of almost 400,000 people in five months, and New Zealand’s most deadly natural disaster for 80 years.
“We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day ... The death toll I have at the moment is 65 and that may rise,” said New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who had flown to his hometown of Christchurch, where he has family.
The magnitude 6.3 quake struck at lunchtime, when streets and shops thronged with people and offices were still occupied.
Rescuers, working under lights in rain, focused on two collapsed buildings: a financial-services -office block whose four stories pancaked on top of each other, and a TV building that also housed an -English-language school.
Twelve Japanese students at the school were believed to be missing, an official in Japan said.
Trapped survivors could be heard shouting out to rescuers from the TV building. Local media say as many as a dozen or more people could still be inside. Relatives of those feared trapped kept a vigil outside the building as rain began to fall.
A woman freed from a collapsed building said she had waited for six hours for rescuers to reach her after the quake, which was followed by at least 20 aftershocks.
“I thought the best place was under the desk, but the ceiling collapsed on top, I can’t move and I’m just terrified,” office worker Anne Voss told TV3 news by mobile phone.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker described the city, a historic tourist town popular with overseas students, as a war zone. He told local radio that up to 200 people could be trapped in buildings, but later revised that estimate down to about 100 or so.
“It is a tragedy that is -unbelievable,” he said.
It was the country’s worst natural disaster since a 1931 quake in the North Island city of Napier that killed 256. Christchurch Hospital saw an influx of injured residents.
“They are largely crushes and cuts types of injuries and chest pain as well,” said David Meates, head of the Canterbury Health Board.
Some of the more seriously injured could be evacuated to other cities, he said.
All army medical staff have been mobilized, while several hundred troops were helping with the rescue, officials said.
Christchurch has been described as a little piece of England.
It has an iconic cathedral, now largely destroyed, and a river called the Avon. It had many historic stone buildings, and is popular with English-language students and also with tourists as a springboard for tours of the scenic South Island.
In Taipei, the Travel Agent Association said it had no reports of casualties among Taiwanese in areas affected by the earthquake.
A tour group organized by Lion Travel Co is traveling in -Queenstown, on South Island. While the group was scheduled to travel to Christchurch tomorrow, the company said it could ask members of the travel group to change their itinerary in light of developments there.
The company said it could remove Christchurch as a destination for tour groups heading to New Zealand in the coming months.
The National Fire Agency was scheduled to send a 24-member rescue team with two sniffer dogs to New Zealand last night.