SYDNEY, Australia – The death count from New Zealand’s massive earthquake was expected to climb past 75 with 300 people still missing as rescuers desperately scoured smoldering mountains of rubble from buildings destroyed in the country’s worst seismic catastrophe in 80 years.
The scene today in Christchurch, the island nation’s second-largest city near the epicenter of the 6.3-magnitude quake, was one of frenzied attempts to reach trapped victims, some of whom officials said were text messaging for help.
Prime Minister John Key said at a news conference that only 55 of 75 confirmed dead had been identified. He declared a state of national emergency, giving the government wider powers to respond to the crisis.
“We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day,” Key said.
Among nearly a dozen buildings where police believe survivors are still trapped, two city center buildings in particular suffered major damage and were the focus of the rescue efforts.
Authorities said 22 people had been rescued from the Pyne Gould Guinness Building and another 22 are believed to still be trapped underneath the rubble. Eight were pulled from the Canterbury television building, with a large number still unaccounted for.
Rescuers reported hearing screams for help from trapped people, some of whom talked to friends and relatives on cell phones from beneath the rubble. One woman called her children to say goodbye.
Authorities said the death toll is “rapidly evolving.”
Authorities said that, at this point, their emphasis is on rescuing the living rather than recovering the dead.
Much of the city remained without water today, although power and telephone service had been restored to many areas. With waste water pumping stations out of action, raw sewage is being pumped into the Avon River.
More than 400 rescuers from around the globe were expected to join the search effort, including a 74-member heavy rescue team from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.