(Mark Mitchell ~ New Zealand Herald)
Search teams using dogs, heavy cranes and earth movers worked through dawn today in one of New Zealand's largest cities, trying frantically to find survivors amid the crumbled concrete, twisted metal and huge mounds of brick left by a powerful earthquake.
But they fear that the death toll -- officially at least 65 as of Wednesday morning local time -- could quickly rise, ranking the disaster among the island nation's worst earthquakes in 80 years. Officials say at least 100 more people are missing.
"There are bodies littering the streets, they are trapped in cars, crushed under rubble and where they are clearly deceased our focus ... has turned to the living," Superintendent Russell Gibson said. "We are getting texts and tapping sounds from some of these buildings and that's where our focus is."
Asked how many may still be trapped, Gibson said: "It could be another hundred -- it could be more."
Gibson said 38 bodies were in a temporary morgue at the central police station. "I know the figure of 65 killed has been mentioned by Prime Minister John Key. It will be considerably higher than that," he said, without elaborating.
"We've been pulling 20 or 30 people out of two buildings right throughout the night" where it was known people were trapped, he told National Radio. At least another dozen collapsed commercial buildings were also being searched for survivors.
Some survivors have emerged without a scratch, while others had to have a limb amputated before they could be freed, he said.
Medical workers brought the injured to a triage center set up in a park in central Christchurch, while military units patrolled near-empty streets disfigured by the huge cracks and canyons created in Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude quake, the second powerful temblor to hit the city in five months.
The quake toppled the spire of the city's historic stone cathedral, flattened tall buildings and sent chunks of concrete and bricks hurtling onto cars, buses and pedestrians below.
"People were covered in rubble, covered in several tons of concrete," said web designer Nathaniel Boehm, who was outside on his lunch break when the quake struck just before 1 p.m. He saw the eaves of buildings cascade onto the street, burying people below.
"It was horrific," he said.
The multistory Pyne Gould Guinness Building, housing more than 200 workers, collapsed. Rescuers, many of them office workers, dragged severely injured people out. Many had blood streaming down their faces. Screams could be heard from those still trapped.
The earthquake knocked out power and telephone lines and burst pipes, flooding the streets with water.
Firefighters climbed ladders to pluck people trapped on roofs of office towers to safety. Plumes of gray smoke drifted into the air from fires burning in the rubble, and helicopters used giant buckets to drench them with water.
The quake even shook off a massive chunk of ice from the country's biggest glacier some 120 miles east of Christchurch.
Tour guides at the Tasman Glacier in the Southern Alps say the quake shook some 30 million tons of ice to off the glacier, forming icebergs in the lake. The falling ice created waves up to 11-feet high, which swept up and down the lake for 30 minutes.
Christchurch's airport was closed for a time, and reopened for emergency flights. Officials said domestic flights would resume on Wednesday.
Thousands of people in the city moved into temporary shelters at schools and community halls. Others, including tourists who had abandoned their hotels, huddled in hastily pitched tents and under plastic sheeting as drizzling rain fell, while the Red Cross tried to find them accommodation.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said it was impossible to say how many were still trapped in the rubble citywide, but it was estimated to be more than 100. He added that 200 workers skilled in rescues had searched through the night.
Some who were trapped were able to call out using their mobile phones, reaching family, officials and media.
"I rang my kids to say goodbye," said Ann Voss, interviewed by TV3 from underneath her desk where she was trapped in a collapsed office building. "It was absolutely horrible. My daughter was crying and I was crying because I honestly thought that was it.
"You know, you want to tell them you love them don't you?"
Voss said she could hear other people still alive in the building and had called out to them and communicated by knocking on rubble.
"I'm not going to give up," she said. "I'm going to stay awake now. They better come and get me."
In the immediate aftermath, dazed, screaming and crying residents wandered the streets as sirens and car alarms blared. With ambulance services overwhelmed, some victims were carried to private vehicles in makeshift stretchers fashioned from rugs or bits of debris.
"It is just a scene of utter devastation," said Key, the prime minister, after rushing to the city within hours of the quake. He said the death toll was 65 and may rise. "We may well be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day." Key said Wednesday an urban search and rescue team from Australia had arrived and begun working, with a second due within hours. New Zealand also accepted offers of specialist rescue teams from Singapore, Japan, the United States, Britain and Taiwan.
A U.S. delegation of 43 government, business and community leaders was in Christchurch for a United States New Zealand Partnership Forum meeting. All were safe. Nine U.S. Congressmen attending the meeting were reported to have left the city before the quake struck.
A more powerful 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, a city of 350,000, on Sept. 4, but caused no deaths.
The latest one may have been deadlier because it was closer to where people live and work, centered 3 miles from the city, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It also may not have been as deep underground.
"The critical issue with this earthquake was that the epicenter was at shallow depth under Christchurch, so many people were within 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) of the fault rupture," said Gary Gibson, a seismologist at Australia's Melbourne University.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was an aftershock from September's temblor. A strong aftershock in December caused further damage to buildings. The city was still rebuilding from those quakes when Tuesday's hit.
Known in New Zealand as the Garden City, Christchurch on the country's South Island exudes the heritage of its 19th century English founders.
A shallow river, the Avon, winds through the downtown that is traversed by historic tram lines and dotted with Gothic architecture, parks and sidewalk cafes. It is a popular destination for foreign tourists and students.
New Zealand's worst earthquake was one that struck in 1931 at Hawke's Bay on the country's North Island, which killed at least 256 people.
Jeff Peters, who runs a luxury motel in Christchurch about 750 yards from the cathedral, said the earthquake sent microwave ovens, plates and cups in his guest rooms flying.
"Sure we've come back from the last one, but what do we do now?" he said. "Because so much of the city has been destroyed."
Associated Press writers Steve McMorran and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Jay Alabaster and Tomoko Hosaka in Tokyo contributed to this report.