New Zealand sees its ‘darkest day’ as deadly quake hits

Rescue workers search for survivors under rubble; at least 65 killed; Israeli backpacker feared dead; Chabad House destroyed.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 22, 2011 22:50
Debris litter central Christchurch, New Zealand.

New Zealand earthquake 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Office workers trapped under their collapsed buildings sent messages to the outside as rescuers with dogs scrambled to save them and dozens of others following a powerful earthquake on Tuesday that killed at least 65 in Christchurch, one of New Zealand’s largest cities.

“It is just a scene of utter devastation,” Prime Minister John Key said, after rushing to the city within hours of the quake. He said the death toll was 65 and may rise.

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“We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day,” he said. “It’s an absolute tragedy for this city, for New Zealand, for the people we care so much about, and it’s a terrifying time for the people of [the] Canterbury [region].

Quite frankly it’s hard to know what to say.”

An Israeli backpacker was reportedly killed, and two others were hurt in the quake. According to media reports, friends of the man informed his parents that he was killed when a boulder smashed into a car he was traveling in.

The Foreign Ministry did not release his name, but television reports on Tuesday night identified him as Ofer Mizrahi, 23, from Kibbutz Magal.



Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke by phone with his New Zealand counterpart, Murray McCully, expressing his condolences.

Lieberman thanked McCully for helping the Israeli Embassy in locating Israelis in the Christchurch area and offered to send Israeli search and rescue experts to help in finding survivors trapped beneath the rubble.

At least 100 people were reportedly missing and believed buried.

Search teams assisted by floodlights and earth movers worked through dawn Wednesday, trying to dig through crumbled concrete, twisted metal and huge mounds of brick.

Medical workers brought the injured to a triage center set up in a park in central Christchurch, while military units patrolled nearempty streets disfigured by the huge cracks and canyons created in Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude quake, the second powerful temblor to hit Christchurch in five months.

Among the destroyed buildings was the Chabad House, a magnet for the scores of post-army Israeli youth who go trekking in New Zealand. About 9,000 Israelis, the vast majority of them backpackers, visit the country each year.

Rabbi Shmuel Freedman, a Chabad emissary living in the city located on New Zealand’s South Island, said the Chabad House was reduced to rubble, but that everyone managed to get out.

“We all ran out as it was falling down, but thank God everybody is okay,” he was quoted as saying by Chabad.org. “We are getting everybody together now at the square to see if anybody is missing, and we are working very hard to help everybody.”

Most of New Zealand’s 7,000 Jews live on the North Island in Auckland and Wellington, which were unaffected by the earthquake.

There is a Jewish community numbering around 200 people in Christchurch.

The Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning after the earthquake, advising Israelis to refrain from going to Christchurch or its surrounding areas. It also called on Israelis in the area to leave.

By Tuesday evening, officials from the embassy in Wellington were not yet in Christchurch, whose airport was closed to all but emergency traffic, but they were en route to help the estimated 100 Israelis in the city at the time of the quake. Concerned relatives called the Foreign Ministry’s situation room throughout the day, seeking any possible information.

The quake toppled the spire of the city’s historic stone cathedral, flattened tall buildings and sent chunks of concrete and bricks hurtling onto cars, buses and pedestrians below.

Web designer Nathaniel Boehm was outside on his lunch break when the quake struck just before 1 p.m. He saw the eaves of buildings cascade onto the street, burying people below.

Others tried to claw their way in, but he didn’t see anyone come out.

“People were covered in rubble, covered in several tons of concrete,” Boehm said. “It was horrific.”

Thousands of people moved into temporary shelters at schools and community halls. Others, including tourists who had abandoned their hotels, huddled in hastily pitched tents and under plastic sheeting as drizzling rain fell, while the Red Cross tried to find them accommodation.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said it was impossible to say how many were still trapped in the rubble but it was estimated to be more than 100. He added that 200 workers skilled in rescues would search through the night.

Some who were trapped were able to call out using their mobile phones, reaching family, officials and media.

“I rang my kids to say goodbye,” said Ann Voss, interviewed by TV3 from underneath her desk where she was trapped in a collapsed office building.

“It was absolutely horrible. My daughter was crying and I was crying, because I honestly thought that was it. You know, you want to tell them you love them, don’t you?” She said she could hear other people still alive in the building and had called out to them and communicated by knocking on rubble.

“I’m not going to give up,” she said. “I’m going to stay awake now. They better come and get me.”

In the immediate aftermath, dazed, screaming and crying residents wandered the streets as sirens and car alarms blared.

With ambulance services overwhelmed, some victims were carried to private vehicles in makeshift stretchers fashioned from rugs or bits of debris.

A search-and-rescue team was being flown in from Australia, and the United States also dispatched a team to help.

A more powerful 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, a city of 350,000, on September 4, but caused no deaths. The latest one may have been deadlier because it was closer to where people live and work, centered 5 kilometers from the city, according to the US Geological Survey. It also may not have been as deep underground.

“The critical issue with this earthquake was that the epicenter was at shallow depth under Christchurch, so many people were within 10 to 20 kilometers of the fault rupture,” said Gary Gibson, a seismologist at Australia’s Melbourne University.

The US Geological Survey said the quake was an aftershock from September’s temblor. A strong aftershock in December caused further damage to buildings.

The city was still rebuilding from those quakes when Tuesday’s hit.

Known in New Zealand as the Garden City, Christchurch exudes the heritage of its 19thcentury English founders. A shallow river, the Avon, winds through the downtown that is traversed by historic tram lines and dotted with Gothic architecture, parks and sidewalk cafes. It is a popular destination for foreign tourists and students.

The multistory Pyne Gould Guinness Building, housing more than 200 workers, collapsed and an unknown number of people were trapped inside. Rescuers, many of them office workers, dragged severely injured people from the rubble. Many had blood streaming down their faces. Screams could be heard from those still trapped.

The earthquake knocked out power and telephone lines and burst pipes, flooding the streets with water. Firefighters climbed extension ladders to pluck people trapped on roofs of office towers to safety. Plumes of gray smoke drifted into the air from fires burning in the rubble, and helicopters used giant buckets to drench them with water.

The Christchurch airport, initially closed, was reopened on Tuesday to emergency flights, and airport officials said domestic flights would resume on Wednesday.

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

Jeff Peters, who runs a luxury motel in Christchurch near the cathedral, said the earthquake sent microwave ovens, plates and cups in his guest rooms flying.

“Sure we’ve come back from the last one, but what do we do now?” he asked. “Because so much of the city has been destroyed.”


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