NZ earthquake toll at 75 dead, 300 missing

Published February 22, 2011

| Associated Press

Cheers erupted Wednesday as rescuers pulled a woman from a major building shattered in New Zealand's devastating earthquake, while the mood was dismal at another wreckage where police said all hopes of survivors were finished.

The confirmed death toll from Tuesday's magnitude-6.3 quake near the city of Christchurch rose to 75, and officials said it was almost sure to climb further. Some 300 people were listed as missing, as rescuers raced to find trapped survivors and imposed a strict nighttime curfew on the worst-hit areas.

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 grey, drizzly weather as she emerged.

"They got Ann out of the building and God turned on the lights," Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker 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. Police announced their curfew in a cordoned-off area of downtown, saying buildings were at risk of crumbling in the aftershocks still rumbling through the city.

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.

Prime Minister John Key declared a national state of emergency as hundreds of soldiers, police and other emergency workers — including specialist teams from the U.S. and other countries — rushed to Christchurch.

The true toll in life and treasure was still unknown, but the earthquake already was shaping as one of the country's worst disasters.

JP Morgan analyst Michael Huttner conservatively estimated the insurance losses from Tuesday quake at US$12 billion. That would be the most from a natural disaster since Hurricane Ike in 2008 at $19 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

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 who 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.

One of the city's tallest buildings, the 27-floor Hotel Grand Chancellor, was showing signs of buckling and was in imminent danger of collapsing, Fire Service commander Mike Hall said. Authorities emptied the building and evacuated a two-block radius.

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.

Parker, the Christchurch mayor, 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.

Some survivors emerged without a scratch, while others had to have a limb amputated before they could be freed.

Rescuers who rushed into buildings immediately after the quake found horrific scenes.

A construction manager described using sledgehammers and chainsaws to cut into the collapsed Pyne Gould Guinness building from the roof, hacking downward through layers of sandwiched offices and finding bodies crushed and pulverized under concrete slabs.

One severely trapped man passed away after talking awhile with rescuers, Fred Haering said.

Another had a leg pinned under concrete, and a doctor administered medicine to deaden the pain. A fireman asked Haering for a hacksaw. Haering handed it over and tried to avert his eyes as the man's leg was sawed off, saving him from certain death.

"It's a necessity of the game," Haering said Wednesday. "How are you gonna get out?"

The quake struck just before 1 p.m. local time on 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.

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Associated Press writers Steve McMorran and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand and Kelly Doherty in Sydney contributed to this report.

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