Rescuers Work to Find Survivors of a Powerful New Zealand Earthquake
By ERICA BERENSTEIN and MERAIAH FOLEY
Published: February 22, 2011
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Rescue workers spent a cold, rainy night pulling survivors from the wreckage caused by a powerful earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, early Tuesday afternoon, killing at least 75 people.
The Lede Blog: Video of New Zealand Earthquake Damage (February 22, 2011)
The New York Times
Some emerged unscathed from the rubble, while emergency workers had to amputate the limbs of others who were trapped, the city’s police superintendent, Russell Gibson, told Radio New Zealand on Wednesday morning.
Officials said Wednesday that at least 75 people had been killed, although only 55 had been identified. The authorities have repeatedly warned that the final death toll could be significantly higher.
Several buildings were demolished when the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, a graceful 19th-century city of nearly 400,000 people, during the busy weekday lunch hour.
Two large office towers, the Pyne Gould building and the Canterbury Television headquarters, virtually collapsed. Some cars and buses were smashed by falling debris.
“We’ve been pulling 20 or 30 people out of those buildings right throughout the night,” Superintendent Gibson said.
But many people did not survive, and Superintendent Gibson said the streets were littered with bodies.
“They are trapped in cars, crushed under rubble and, where they are clearly deceased, our focus unfortunately at this time has turned to the living,” he told the radio network. “We are getting texts and tapping sounds from some of these buildings, and that’s where our focus is at the moment.”
Police officers were moving from building to building, calling out for survivors and listening for any signs of life from within heavily damaged buildings, he said.
Ross Ditmer, the fire service area commander, told reporters that 15 people had been found alive deep in the wreckage of the Canterbury Television building, which caught fire after it collapsed.
Photographs and videos from the scene in the aftermath of the earthquake showed people running through the streets, and landslides pouring rocks and debris into suburban streets.
People said they watched the spire of the landmark 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.
Shortly after declaring a state of emergency and ordering the evacuation of the city center on Tuesday, Christchurch’s mayor, Bob Parker, told reporters: “I think we need to prepare ourselves in this city for a death toll that could be significant. It’s not going to be good news, and we need to steel ourselves to understand that.”
Hundreds of frightened residents crammed into temporary shelters. Food and drinking water were being brought into the city.
The rescue mission was further complicated by repeated strong aftershocks and wet, chilly conditions overnight. News reports said trapped office workers used cellphones to call for help.
Prime Minister John Key said that while the extent of the devastation was unknown, 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.”
A number of makeshift triage centers and emergency clinics were set up across the city to handle the influx of injured people. Some victims were airlifted to hospitals outside the earthquake zone.
By Tuesday afternoon, officials said there were no ambulances available in the city, that all were tied up with urgent calls. Video showed office workers loading their injured co-workers into station wagons and four-wheel- drive vehicles because of the lack of emergency transportation.
Police officers and search and rescue teams were being flown to the scene from Australia on Wednesday. Members of the Singaporean Army, in Christchurch for training exercises, were expected to also help with search and rescue efforts, officials said.
The Christchurch Airport, which was closed on Tuesday, was expected to reopen for emergency flights and some domestic flights on Wednesday.
Video from the scene by 3 News New Zealand showed emergency crews pulling shaken and injured victims from damaged buildings, including the four-story Pyne Gould building. The top three floors of the building, a 1960s-era structure, collapsed as terrified workers huddled under desks. A video showed a 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,” a man who escaped the building told 3 News. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In another building, residents rappelled to safety from a broken window after the stairwell in the 17-story building collapsed.
Some witnesses reported seeing people inside the ChristChurch Cathedral when its spire collapsed, but it was not known if anyone was killed. The Associated Press and other news outlets reported that as many as 23 Japanese exchange students were trapped in their language school, which was inside the devastated Canterbury Television building in the city’s downtown.
“Until we’ve got the search and rescue teams in place and systematically go through each building, we won’t get an idea of how many people are missing and unaccounted for,” the New Zealand civil defense director, John Hamilton, told reporters in Wellington, the capital.
The earthquake hit the country’s South Island just before 1 p.m. local time. The United States Geological Survey said it was part of an aftershock sequence from a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that rocked the same area in September, but caused no casualties.
Officials said Tuesday’s earthquake packed more deadly force because its epicenter was closer to the city and it struck at a shallower depth than the more powerful earthquake in September. It was centered about six miles from downtown Christchurch, and was only about three miles underground.
Several news outlets reported extensive devastation to the nearby seaside town of Lyttelton, close to the epicenter of the earthquake.
According to The A.P., 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.
A delegation of American government, business and community leaders had been in Christchurch for a meeting of the United States New Zealand Partnership Forum. Many participants, including several members of Congress, left the city only hours before the earthquake.
A senior official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Timothy W. Manning, who is the deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness, was part of the delegation. He said in an interview that he had spent several days with local officials, inspecting structural damage and repairs caused by the September earthquake.
Mr. Manning said he had been at the airport on Tuesday, preparing to leave, when the earthquake struck.
Jason Tweedie, 40, was sitting in his four-wheel-drive vehicle when the quake struck. “The earthquake itself was quite violent, a lot of movement,” he said. “It felt like there were about 10 people shaking the side of it, all at once, it was so much force.”
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 neighborhood 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.
“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.”