Monday, February 21, 2011

Deadly quake rocks New Zealand, topples buildings

Deadly quake rocks New Zealand, topples buildings

By Gyles Beckford | Reuters – 57 minutes agoWELLINGTON (Reuters) - A strong quake killed and trapped people beneath rubble and sparked fires and toppled buildings in New Zealand's second-biggest city of Christchurch on Tuesday.

It was the second quake to hit the city in five months.

Local TV showed bodies being pulled out of rubble strewn around the city centre, though it was unclear whether any of them were alive. But police reported multiple fatalities after the 6.3 magnitude quake struck during the busy lunchtime.

"I was in the square right outside the cathedral -- the whole front has fallen down and there were people running from there. There were people inside as well," said John Gurr, a camera technician who was in the city centre when the quake hit.

Authorities ordered major hospitals up and down the country to make room for quake victims but there was no word on how many might have been killed or were trapped beneath collapsed buildings. There were reports of a shortage of ambulances.

Christchurch's mayor described the city of almost 400,000 people as a war zone. Emergency crews picked through the rubble, including a multi-storey office building whose floors appeared to have pancaked on top of each other.

"A lady grabbed hold of me to stop falling over...We just got blown apart. Colombo Street, the main street, is just a mess...There's lots of water everywhere, pouring out of the ground," Gurr said.


Christchurch is built on silt, sand and gravel, with a water table beneath. In an earthquake, the water rises, mixing with the sand and turning the ground into a swamp and swallowing up sections of road and entire cars.

TV footage showed sections of road that had collapsed into a milky, sand-coloured river running right beneath the surface. One witness described the footpaths as like "walking on sand".

Unlike last year's even stronger tremor, which struck early in the morning when streets were virtually empty, the streets, shops and offices were thronged with people when the shallow tremor hit.

It hit at 12:51 pm (2351 GMT Monday) at a depth of only 4 km (2.5 miles), according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Web site.

"It's huge, it's just huge," a priest told a TV reporter outside the remains of the city's stone cathedral, part of which had been reduced to a pile of large sandstone blocks.

"I just don't know whether there are people under this rubble," he said, before he appeared to add in a quiet voice: "I think so."

Prime Minister John Key, who called an emergency cabinet meeting for later in the day, told parliament he could not rule out casualties: "We are aware of significant damage to buildings that had people in them at the time."

The quake helped knock the New Zealand dollar down to $0.7541 , 1.2 percent off late U.S. levels, on fears the damage could dent confidence

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