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Emergency Responders Overwhelmed By New Zealand Quake

People walk past rubble as they help the injured evacuate after an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in this February 22, 2011 image taken from video footage.
People walk past rubble as they help the injured evacuate after an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in this February 22, 2011 image taken from video footage.

A massive earthquake has devastated the New Zealand city of Christchurch, toppling tall office buildings at the height of the workday and killing at least 65 people.

Fire and rescue crews said their resources were overwhelmed as they struggled to cope with large numbers of people injured and trapped in the rubble. Helicopters were used to douse some fires and a crane was called in to rescue workers from the roof of a high-rise office tower.

Prime Minister John Key, who rushed to the city from the capital, Wellington, said the death toll was liable to rise. He said, "We may be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day."

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake was the second in five months for the city, which came through a 7.1-magnitude quake in September without loss of life. But seismologists said this one struck closer to the city and much closer to the surface, making it far more intense.

The earlier quake also came at 5 a.m., while most residents were safe in their beds. Tuesday's temblor struck just before 1 p.m., when workers were in their offices or in the streets for lunch and children were making their way home from school.

Video footage showed several multi-story buildings that fell in on themselves or into the streets, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, whose stone spire collapsed into a city square. Dazed residents wandered along the broken sidewalks as ambulances raced through rubble-strewn streets with sirens blaring.

The city's airport was shut down and many roads are impassible.

Mr. Key said in a television interview that crews would work through the night to find and rescue people who are trapped in the collapsed buildings.  He said 350 military troops were already at work in the city and another 250 were on the way to relieve them.

Slideshow of Eathquake damage

The prime minister described seeing residents sitting by the side of the road with their heads in their hands and said the city of about 350,000 people is "in absolute agony."  He said offers of help have been received from the United States and Australia.

Radio New Zealand reporter Laura Davis told VOA from Auckland that search-and-rescue teams were being flown in from around the country and that the government has accepted an offer of help from neighboring Australia.

She said 70 army medical staff have been deployed to help the city's overtaxed emergency crews and that up to 400 army troops had been sent to help seal off the most affected areas. The city's airport was shut down and many roads are impassible.

Davis also said schools had let out shortly before the quake and that many children were walking home when it struck. She said it was not clear what had happened to them.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centered five kilometers from Christchurch and at a depth of just four kilometers. Government seismologist Bill Fry told VOA that made it much more intense than the stronger quake that hit the city in September.

Fry explained that during the 10-second temblor, the ground was accelerating more rapidly "than the rate of an apple falling out of a tree."

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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