Rescue workers spent a cold, rainy night searching through rubble for survivors of a powerful earthquake that struck New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, on Tuesday, killing at least 65 people.
Photographs and video from Christchurch, a graceful 19th-century city of nearly 400,000 residents, showed people running through the streets, landslides pouring rocks and debris into suburban streets and extensive damage to buildings.
Witnesses told of watching the spire of the iconic Christchurch Cathedral come crashing down during an aftershock. One witness called it “the most frightening thing of my entire life,” and television video showed a person clinging to a window in the cathedral’s steeple. (New York Times) Some witnesses reported seeing people inside the Christchurch Cathedral when its spire collapsed, but it was not clear if anyone was killed.
Videos from the scene by 3 News New Zealand showed emergency crews pulling shaken and injured victims from damaged buildings, including one four-story structure, the Pine Gould Guinness building, which was nearly flattened. The top three floors of the building, a 1960’s-era structure, had collapsed as terrified workers huddled under desks. Video showed one woman clinging to the roof as emergency workers raised a crane to rescue her. “There was a guy on the second floor who was buried up to his waist in concrete and stuff,” one man, who escaped the Pine Gould building, told 3 News. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” (New York Times)
In another building, residents rappelled to safety from a broken window after a stairwell in their 17-story building collapsed.
The Associated Press and other news outlets reported that up to 23 Japanese exchange students were trapped in their language school, which was located inside the devastated CTV building in downtown Christchurch.
“The earthquake itself was quite violent, a lot of movement,” said Jason Tweedie, a 40-year-old Christchurch resident who was sitting in his four-wheel drive vehicle when the earthquake struck. “It felt like there were about 10 people shaking the side of it, all at once, it was so much force.” (New York Times) The force of the earthquake pushed thousands of gallons of water and silt into the streets, Mr. Tweedie said, and in some places the road appeared to open up and swallow several cars in his beachside neighbourhood of New Brighton.
Julian Sanderson was in his apartment on the first floor of an old brick movie theater when the walls and ceiling began to crumble around him. “When it all stopped, I had to kick out the front door to get out,” Mr. Sanderson, 41, said by telephone, standing in front of his nearly collapsed building. “I used to work in that building making furniture, but everything has just changed. What we have now is the clothes that we’re wearing.” (New York Times)
Trapped under her office desk, Anne Voss told a New Zealand TV station: “I rang my kids to say goodbye. 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?” (BBC) She said she could hear other people alive in the building, and had called out to them.
One Christchurch resident, Jaydn Katene, told the New Zealand Herald: “We’ve had friends in town call us and say there are lots of dead bodies outside shops just lying there just covered in bricks.” (BBC)
John Gurr, a camera technician, told Reuters news agency the area was “like a war zone.”
A man trapped on the 12th story of a Christchurch building told how aftershocks rumbled through the damaged building, rattling the nerves of the 19 other co-workers trapped on the same floor. “Every aftershock sends us scrambling, it doesn’t take much to set us off,” Gary Moore told CNN by phone from the 17-story Forsyth Barr Hotel. “But the stairwells have collapsed and we are just looking into a void. We’re fine but we are badly shaken. We’re just playing the waiting game and letting loved ones know we’re okay. We watched from the building as our cathedral collapsed and a five-story building. We’ve got 10 people here from our office and another 10 people from an adjoining office. Someone has written on the pavement that help is on its way. We’re doing our best to jolly people along,” he said. “The language was a bit rich when it first hit.” (CNN)
“It felt like I was running on jelly,” Gavin Blowman said. “We saw a giant rock tumble to the ground from a cliff – a rock that had been there for millennia. It fell on the RSA (Returned Services Association, a veteran’s association) building – it was terrifying.” He said there were now fears that a tsunami could hit in the wake of the quake and that he and another 20 people were trying to get to higher ground. (CNN)
Olivia Harris of Vancouver Island, who is studying radiology at a Zealand Hospital in Christchurch, was doing a phone interview with CBC News when a powerful aftershock hit Tuesday. “I’m right in the middle of the road so nothing can really fall on me,” Harris said, adding that at the hospital there was pandemonium. “The influx of patients just coming in… such a fast rate. There was doctors rushing into the hospital saying, ‘I’m a doctor, how can I help? How can I help?’” (CBC) Eventually, Harris said, she made her way home but was too frightened to sleep inside, so she spent the night camping on her lawn.
Eleisha McNeil of Toronto, who is also in Christchurch, said that her street was a “sea of mud and water that’s bubbled out of the ground” Tuesday and that she felt some aftershocks. She was home with her husband and baby when the initial quake hit Monday, bouncing her all over the house. “The noise was astounding. Everything that could fall down, did fall down.” (CBC)
Officials warned that the death toll was likely to rise as scores of people were still missing and feared trapped in the wreckage of several buildings that were flattened by the 6.3 magnitude earthquake or the aftershocks still rocking the city. Officials gave no clear estimates of how many people might have been trapped in the rubble, and there were conflicting reports about the number missing in the chaos late Tuesday.
“I think we need to prepare ourselves in this city for a death toll that could be significant,” Mayor Bob Parker told reporters shortly after declaring a state of emergency and ordering the evacuation of the city center. “It’s not going to be good news, and we need to steel ourselves to understand that.” (New York Times)
Hundreds of frightened residents crammed into temporary shelters. Mr. Parker warned residents to prepare for a night without electricity and running water. Food and drinking water were being brought into the city overnight, he said.
The rescue mission was further complicated by repeated strong aftershocks and wet, chilly conditions overnight. News agency reports said trapped office workers used their cellphones to send out maydays.
Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said that 350 military personnel had been deployed to help with search and rescue efforts. “The government is willing to throw everything it can in the rescue effort. Time is going to be of essence,” Mr. English said. (BBC) The government has accepted an offer of specialist help from Australia, whose rescuers are due to arrive in New Zealand.
The Red Cross has been trying to find accommodation for people sheltering outside in tents or under plastic sheeting. A number of makeshift triage centers and emergency clinics were set up across the city to handle the influx of injured people. Officials said the city’s largest medical facility, Christchurch Hospital, was bracing for multiple casualties. Some victims have been airlifted to hospitals outside the earthquake zone. By Tuesday afternoon, officials said there were no ambulances available in the city, all were tied up with urgent calls. Video from the scene showed office workers loading their injured colleagues into station wagons and four-wheel drives because of the lack of emergency vehicles.
The Christchurch Airport was closed and said on its Web site that it would reopen Wednesday morning only for domestic flights. All the schools in Christchurch are closed until further notice, as expert teams are assessing any potential damage to the buildings.
Prime Minister John Key said the extent of the devastation was unknown, but that New Zealand had witnessed “its darkest day,” and one of its worst natural disasters. “It’s an absolute tragedy for this city, for New Zealand, for the people that we care so much about,” he told TVNZ, the national television broadcaster. “People are just sitting on the side of the road, their heads in their hands. This is a community that is absolutely in agony.” (New York Times) Mr. Key held an emergency cabinet meeting before heading to the disaster zone. “We paid a very heavy price here.” (BBC)
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who is also New Zealand’s head of state, said in a statement she had been “utterly shocked” by the news. “My thoughts are with all those who have been affected by this dreadful event,” the statement said. (BBC)
The earthquake hit the country’s South Island just before 1 p.m. local time, and the United States Geological Survey said it was part of an aftershock sequence from a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that rocked the same area in September, but caused no casualties. “There is more substantial damage to buildings than there was during the original earthquake,” the civil defence minister, John Carter, told reporters in the capital, Wellington. Tuesday’s tremor was centered about six miles down from Christchurch, and was only about three miles underground, possibly making it more destructive. Though it was shorter in duration and lower in magnitude, many residents said the earthquake felt more violent than September’s. The quake caused 30 millions of ice to break off the Tasman glacier. It is the biggest glacier in New Zealand, about 200 kilometers from Christchurch.
Several news outlets reported extensive devastation to the nearby seaside town of Lyttelton, nearest the epicenter of the quake. According to the Associated Press, the earthquake dislodged 30 million tons of ice from the Tasman Glacier in the Southern Alps that slid into a lake, creating waves up to 11 feet high. The A.P. also reported that an American delegation of 43 government, business and community leaders in the city for a United States New Zealand Partnership Forum meeting were thought to be safe. It said that nine congressmen attended the meeting had left the city before the disaster.
In Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it had no reports of any Canadians affected by the earthquake. Speaking to reporters in Victoria Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the situation was affecting him personally because he and his wife Laureen have friends there whom they have not been able to contact since the quake hit. Laureen Harper also lived there for a time when she was younger. Harper said he has been in contact with the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, and pledged assistance. However, Harper didn’t say anything specific about what Canada would contribute. Earlier Wednesday, Harper issued a statement extending his “deepest sympathies” to those who lost loved ones in the quake. “The thoughts and prayers of Canadians are with all those affected by the earthquake. Canada is standing by to offer any possible assistance to New Zealand in responding to this natural disaster,” the statement said. (CBC)