Wed February 23, 2011

Frantic Search For Survivors Of New Zealand Quake

New Zealand declared a national civil defense emergency for the first time in its history Wednesday as rescue workers raced to locate survivors from the earthquake that shattered the country's second-largest city.

More than 100 aftershocks have shaken Chistchurch on New Zealand's South Island since the magnitude 6.3 temblor, adding to the difficulty of search and rescue operations. Officials have abandoned efforts at one building where about 100 people were thought to have been trapped, saying it's unlikely any survivors remain.

The confirmed death toll rose to 75, and officials said it was almost sure to climb further. Some 300 people were listed as missing as a strict nighttime curfew was imposed on the worst-hit areas.

"We know there are a number of sites where it's likely that we've suffered other fatalities," Prime Minister John Key said. "And it's a very tragic situation and it's a time of great agony for those families and of course for other New Zealanders looking on."

Police announced their curfew in a cordoned-off area of downtown, saying buildings were at risk of crumbling in the aftershocks rumbling the city.

One of the city's tallest buildings, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, was showing signs of buckling. One side of the 26-story building was sagging, and officials feared that it could collapse from any of the numerous aftershocks. Authorities emptied the building and evacuated a two-block radius.

Rescue crews from the U.S., Britain, Japan and several other countries were racing to New Zealand, while hundreds of emergency workers from neighboring Australia were already on the ground.

The immediate focus was on about a dozen buildings downtown where finding survivors was still a possibility. In other places, rubble was being left untouched — even if bodies were thought buried there — until the urgency of the survivor search passes.

Officials pointed thermal cameras into the wreckage, and sniffer dogs clambered on top looking for signs of life. Officials at one point said they believed they had found a pocket of at least 15 people buried alive in one building — but the report turned out to be false.

Some survivors have emerged from collapsed buildings completely unharmed, while others have had limbs amputated just to be pulled out from debris.

An emergency team reunited Ann Bodkin with her husband after a painstaking rescue from the twisted metal and concrete remains of the Pyne Gould Guinness building. Coincidentally, giant sunbeams burst through the city's gray, drizzly weather as she emerged.

"They got Ann out of the building and God turned on the lights," Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said.

Near the smoldering remains of the Canterbury Television building, brother and sister Kent and Lizzy Manning sat on a rain-sodden patch of grass Wednesday waiting for news of their mother, Donna, a television presenter whom they hadn't heard from since the quake.

"My mum is superwoman; she'd do anything," said Lizzy Manning, 18, with tears running down her face.

At that moment, a police official knelt down beside the pair.

"I have some horrible news ...," the officer began, before telling the siblings that there was no hope for anyone left trapped inside the building. The siblings bowed their heads and wept. Their father rushed over and enclosed them in an embrace.

Parker said 120 people were rescued overnight Tuesday, while more bodies were also recovered. About 300 people were still unaccounted for, but this did not mean they were all still trapped, he said.

Many sections of the city of 350,000 people lay in ruins, and all corners of it were suffering cuts to water supplies, power and phones. Electricity remained out for about half of the homes in Christchurch, and some areas were struggling with knee-deep flooding caused by groundwater bubbling up from the city's sandy soil.

Security also was a factor, with six people being arrested since the quake for burglary and theft, said Superintendent Dave Cliff, the regional police commander. Anyone on the streets after 6:30 p.m. without a valid reason would be arrested, he said.

The earthquake already is shaping up as one of the country's worst disasters.

JPMorgan analyst Michael Huttner conservatively estimated the insurance losses from Tuesday's quake at $12 billion — the highest from a natural disaster since Hurricane Ike in 2008 at $19 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

The quake struck just before 1 p.m. local time Tuesday, when the city was thronging with workers, tourists and shoppers. The quake was not as powerful as a magnitude 7.1 temblor that struck before dawn on Sept. 4 that damaged buildings but killed no one. Experts said Tuesday's quake was deadlier because it was closer to the city and because more people were about.

Christchurch's airport reopened for domestic flights Wednesday, and military planes were brought in to fly tourists to other cities.

Officials told people to avoid showering or even flushing toilets, saying the damaged sewer system was at risk of failing. All schools in the city were closed until further notice, and residents were told to stay close to home unless travel was absolutely necessary.

Christchurch's main hospital was inundated with casualties, most of them with crush injuries to their head or chest, and severe lacerations, said spokeswoman Amy Milne. But officials said the health system was coping, with some of the patients moved to other cities.

Tanker trucks were stationed at 14 points throughout the city where residents could come to fill buckets and bottles, civil defense officials said. People also were being encouraged to catch and save rainwater.

New Zealand's worst earthquake struck in 1931 at Hawke's Bay on the country's North Island, killing at least 256 people.

Stuart Cohen reported from Sydney for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.