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Huge Quake Rescue Effort Under Way in New Zealand

Rescue workers work to extinguish a fire at a collapsed building in central Christchurch, Feb 22 2011
Rescue workers work to extinguish a fire at a collapsed building in central Christchurch, Feb 22 2011

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Residents of New Zealand's second largest city, Christchurch, continue to dig out and search for survivors after the city was devastated by a massive earthquake that toppled tall buildings and churches during a busy workday. The quake killed at least 75 people and many more were missing.

Reporter Kim Savage at News Talk Zed Bee in Auckland told VOA's Ira Mellman that Tuesday night/Wednesday morning had been a sleepless night for many in Christchurch.

Office workers in Christchurch suddenly were thrown into an unimaginable and chaotic situation. Todd Lynch was among scores of people who escaped their crumbled offices. "God I do not really know what happened, and then I heard some people screaming out which are on the second and third floor and managed to pull them out," he said.

More than 100 people, including as many as 12 visiting Japanese students, were thought to be trapped underneath rubble as drizzling rain fell on the city at nightfall.  

New Zealand's Civil Defense Minister John Carter says teams from other areas are converging on Christchurch. "The search and rescue teams from New Plymouth and Auckland will be down and operating in the next four or five hours, and of course the police in the meantime already have teams of people out there working to go through the damage to try and help and assist where they can," he said.

Slideshow of damage in Christchurch

On live television, a visibly shaken Prime Minister John Key said 350 military troops joined rescue efforts immediately after the quake struck, and hundreds of others would be pressed into action.

Les Carpenter speaks with U.S. Congressman Don Manzullo, who left Christchurch shortly before the earthquake and was in a meeting with New Zealand PM Key when the tremor struck.

"I do not think we can go past the fact that we may well be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day. The advice I have had at the moment, I think the viewers will understand and appreciate that it's very fluid advice at the moment, but the death toll I have at the moment is 65, and that may rise. So look it is an absolute tragedy for this city, for New Zealand, for the people we care so much about. And it is a terrifying time for the people," he said.

Rescue crews with sniffer dogs fanned out across the city in search of survivors, some of whom sent desperate text messages and made cell phone calls from under the wreckage of the 6.3-magnitude quake.

Toby is a survivor who was trapped for several hours in a collapsed building before he was pulled to safety. "I was banging on the metal yelling out 'help' because my voice was better than theirs. Luckily one of them got out before me," he said.

His mother Tania was nearby and relieved to be reunited with her son. "From where he was on the fourth floor, really I thought he was gone. But I chose not to leave here, until I knew for myself that he is alright," she said.

Television footage showed several multi-story buildings that fell in on themselves or into the streets, as well as the collapse of the Christchurch Cathedral, whose stone spire crumbled into a city square.  Rescue workers say they believe people were in the tower at the time.  

Helicopters were seen fighting fires and plucking stranded workers from the roofs of high-rise office towers.

Domestic flights were disrupted at New Zealand's Auckland airport stranding hundreds of travelers, many who were taking the delays in stride.

"I just said to that lady, that I got my book, it could be awhile, but I see we're lucky compared with, you know, not complaining,"said one woman.

The earthquake, which struck at midday Tuesday, was the second to hit Christchurch in the past five months. The city came through a 7.1-magnitude quake in September without loss of life. But seismologists said Tuesday's quake struck closer to the city and much closer to the surface, making it far more intense.


Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

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