An earthquake of magnitude 6.3 struck Christchurch, New Zealand in the middle of the workday yesterday, followed within hours by aftershocks measured at 5.6 and 5.5. The devastation was horrific, as office buildings collapsed on top of hundreds of workers, trapping them at their desks.
There have been 65 confirmed fatalities so far. Rescue teams with dogs are still combing through the wreckage, looking for more survivors. People trapped inside the wreckage are communicating through cell phones, sometimes to offer tearful farewells to families they never expect to see again.
Residents describe buildings dissolving into clouds of dust during the quake, with one eyewitness telling the BBC her house was “picked up like something from The Wizard of Oz and shaken for what seemed like a minute. It was absolutely terrifying.” In a radio interview, the mayor of Christchurch said the force of the quake “tossed him across the room.” The façade of the famous Christchurch Cathedral was ripped apart.
Christchurch has a permanent population of around 350,000, and is also a center for commerce and tourism. Among the missing are a group of Japanese students who were having lunch when the quake struck. So far, only two of the 21 students have been rescued. A group of United States congressmen were visiting earlier in the day, and left the city just hours before the disaster.
Yesterday’s tremblor was actually part of the aftershock sequence from an even more powerful earthquake in September, which caused much property damage but no casualties, as it was centered further from the city and occurred over a weekend. The U.S. Geological Survey speculates the Tuesday quake could be associated with a series of fault lines in the Port Hills area, south of Christchurch. This is the sixth, and strongest, major aftershock to follow the September quake. There could be more to come.
CNN reports that Prime Minister John Key, upon surveying the damage, said “this may be New Zealand’s darkest day.” It may be followed by their brightest hour, as emergency teams have been pulling off incredible rescues. International reinforcements, including an American search-and-rescue team, are on the way to help. The clock is ticking for people trapped in the rubble. May the coming day be one of miracles and reunions for the people of Christchurch.