75 dead in New Zealand quake; emergency declared

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CHRISTCHURCH - The New Zealand government Wednesday declared a state of emergency a day after massive earthquake hit the country’s second largest city killing at least 75 people and leaving 300 missing in perhaps the worst disaster in the country’s history.

According to Civil Defence Minister John Carter, the declaration of a National Emergency reflects the likelihood that Tuesday’s quake may prove to be New Zealand’s worst natural disaster, the New Zealand Herald reported.

“We felt it was justified in this case because of the devastation that’s occurring and the likely impact it will have on so many people,” the minister was quoted as saying.

The quake hit the central city, a business hub of New Zealand, at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday when office buildings and streets were packed with people.

In 1931, an earthquake hit New Zealand’s northern Napier city, killing 256 people. But Carter said until the toll and damage from Tuesday’s quake was confirmed, “it’s difficult to make those sorts of comparisons”.

Carter said the confirmed toll so far, including those dead who remained unidentified, was at 75.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me or any one else to speculate on that,” he said.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said there were now 55 identified bodies at a morgue, which had been set up at local military base, DPA reported.

Another 20 bodies had been recovered, but were not yet at the morgue and had yet to be identified.

Parker said it was hoped that many of those 300 missing people would be accounted for over the course of the day.

Search and rescue staff also said many people remain trapped alive inside buildings destroyed by the 6.3-magnitude earthquake.

More than 120 people had already been pulled from collapsed buildings as rescuers worked through the night under floodlights in the rain.

Search efforts are focussed on around 10 buildings, where it is feared more than 100 people could still be trapped. These included a number of Japanese students who had been studying English in Christchurch.

Fifteen people were confirmed alive in one building as rescuers tried to reach them through tonnes of rubble.

However, police gave up all hope of finding survivors at Canterbury TV station building which was also collapsed.

Police inspector Dave Lawry said he was “100 percent” sure that those trapped in the building, including a group of overseas students, were dead.

Civil Defence national controller David Coetzee said, search and rescue teams could continue looking for survivors Wednesday night.

Coetzee said hundreds of rescuers, including seven local response teams from across New Zealand, have been deployed.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said about 1,000 defence personnel were deployed in the rescue efforts.

A disaster assistance and relief team of 55 people from Singapore is expected to arrive Wednesday and 198 people from the US, Japan, and Britain Thursday.

Prime Minister John Key said the quake had brought “death and destruction on a dreadful scale”.

He said there was no question the earthquake would have a significant economic impact on Christchurch and New Zealand.

“We’re going to have to go back and reassess every building,” Key said, adding that the earthquake was estimated to have cost $6-8 billion.

The country’s flags were flying half-mast on all government buildings Wednesday to honour the victims of the devastating quake.

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