Prime Minister John Key said that at least 65 people were confirmed dead in the 6.3-magnitude quake. The mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of the city’s downtown area, The Associated Press reported.
Television footage from the scene by 3 News New Zealand showed emergency crews pulling shaken and injured victims from the stricken buildings, including one four-story structure, the Pine Gould Guinness building, that was partially damaged by the temblor. Emergency crews were working to evacuate people from another building that had caught fire shortly after the quake.
The search and rescue mission was being further complicated by repeated strong aftershocks to the zone, officials said.
“Government agencies and emergency services are still putting together a picture of the damage,” New Zealand’s deputy prime minister, Bill English, told reporters in the capital, Wellington.
Mr. English and the civil defense minister, John Carter, said that Christchurch’s main hospital, which sustained minimal damage, was preparing for multiple casualties. Some victims had already been airlifted to hospitals outside the earthquake zone.
The Christchurch Airport was closed and said on its Web site that it would reopen Wednesday morning only for domestic flights.
Photographs and video from Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city with an urban area of nearly 400,00 residents, showed people running through the streets, massive landslides pouring rocks and debris into suburban streets and extensive damage to the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. One witness called it “the most frightening thing of my entire life.”