Major quake devastates New Zealand’s Christchurch, at least 65 dead

February 22nd, 2011 - 12:47 pm ICT by BNO News  

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND (BNO NEWS) — At least 65 people were killed on early Tuesday afternoon when a strong earthquake struck near the New Zealand city of Christchurch, officials said. A state of emergency has been declared.

The first earthquake, a magnitude 6.3 on the Richter scale at 12.51 p.m. local time (2351 GMT Monday), was centered about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand. It struck about 5 kilometers (3 miles) deep, making it a shallow earthquake, according to the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GeoNet), the country’s seismological agency.

Minutes later, at 1.04 p.m. local time (0004 GMT Tuesday), a 5.7-magnitude earthquake struck the same location at a depth of just 6 kilometers (3.7 miles). It was followed by a 5.5-magnitude earthquake at 2.50 p.m. local time (0150 GMT), as well as other but smaller aftershocks.

Police said there was widespread damage and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed at least 65 dead. “Multiple fatalities have been reported at several locations in the central city, including two buses crushed by falling buildings,” said Stephen Hill, a Police District Communications Manager. “A doctor and emergency services are attending.”

Hill said multiple buildings have collapsed while other buildings are on fire, with people still trapped inside. One local television station reported that as many as 200 people could be trapped in one building alone. This was not immediately confirmed by officials.

“The National Crisis Management Centre has been activated. MCDEM is standing up all available Urban Search and Rescue teams,” the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) said. “USAR support from Australia is being mobilized, while support from the United States is on standy.”

MCDEM added that Christchurch hospital has re-opened after it was earlier evacuated as a precaution. “Only one ward was damaged,” it said. Three triage centers have been established in Central City, Sydenham and Papanui. Wellington Hospital is on stand-by to receive patients if required.

Christchurch City declared a state of emergency at 2.45 p.m. local time as rescue operations continue. Damage was also reported to the Lyttelton Port of Christchurch, although the extent of the damage was not immediately known.

Emergency services were scrambling to respond to the earthquake, and police said defence forces were being called in to assist. It gave no other details.

Meanwhile, Christchurch International Airport was briefly evacuated because of the earthquake and all incoming flights have been diverted or canceled until at least 8 a.m. local time on Wednesday. “Christchurch International Airport is open for emergency flights only,” MCDEM said, adding that the runway is being assessed. Police said there were no injuries at the airport.

Telecom New Zealand said some of its network sites have been “badly damaged” and are not working, while others are operating on battery back-up power. “Telecom is working intensively to understand which services have been affected by today’s earthquake and get these restored as soon as possible,” the telephone company said.

It added: “To minimize the stress on the network and to conserve back-up power we ask people to only use their phones for emergency calls.” Telecom also moved to enable free calling from 280 payphones in and around Christchurch for local, national and mobile calls, while payphone calling will be free from 3 a.m. local time on Wednesday.

Last year, a powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck just kilometers (miles) from Tuesday’s epicenter. Some 100 people were injured in that earthquake, but there were no fatalities.

A geophysicist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) said it was not yet able to determine if Tuesday’s earthquake was an aftershock to the earthquake September. “But it is close,” he said, adding that the agency is still investigating.

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