CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) - New Zealand rescuers sifted through rubble in search of quake survivors on Wednesday, guided by sounds of crying and tapping, as the death toll in Christchurch climbed to 75, with many dozens still feared trapped inside collapsed buildings.
Rescue teams had to perform amputations to free some of the 120 survivors so far pulled from the wreckage of Tuesday’s strong tremor, which had hit the country’s second-biggest city at lunchtime. The death toll is expected to rise further.
“We are getting texts (sms messages) and tapping sounds from the living and that’s our focus at the moment,” police shift commander Russell Gibson said on Radio New Zealand.
The local mayor said rescuers had detected a group of 15 survivors trapped inside a collapsed building housing local broadcaster CTV. It is also home to an English-language school where up to a dozen Japanese students are feared to be inside.
“We put a camera into the building at the CTV site and we found a pocket with 15 people alive in there and the crew is working to get those people out,” a rescuer said.
As many as 300 people are still missing a day after the quake, local mayor Bob Parker added, but it was unclear how many of these could be explained by communication breakdowns between family and friends and the authorities. Previously, Parker has said that up to around 100 people could be trapped.
Authorities have identified 55 dead bodies and there are another 20 still to be identified. The toll seems certain to rise further as the frantic search effort focuses on survivors ahead of retrieving and identifying dead bodies.
“There are bodies littering the streets. They’re trapped in cars, crushed under rubble, and where they are clearly deceased our focus unfortunately at this time has turned to the living,” police commander Gibson said.
Tuesday’s 6.3 magnitude quake struck -- the second to hit the historic tourist town in five months -- struck when streets and shops thronged with people and offices were still occupied. It was New Zealand’s most deadly natural disaster for 80 years.
Wednesday, as dawn broke over the ruins of central Christchurch, roads were buckled, buildings toppled and large pools of water had welled up from broken water pipes and sewers.
In places, roads had collapsed into a milky, sand-coloured lake beneath the surface, the result of Christchurch’s sandy foundations mixing with subterranean water under the force of the quake. Officials call it “liquefaction” of the ground.
Rescuers focused their greatest efforts on two collapsed buildings: a financial-services office block whose four stories pancaked on top of each other, and the CTV building.
Eight people had been pulled from the smoldering CTV building and a group of six was known to be sheltering together.
A young man, whose fiancee was trapped in the building, had stood vigil through the night. “They’re working by hand...they’ve been bringing people out alive, and some dead as well,” the man who declined to be named told Reuters.
A further 22 people were known to be trapped in the finance building with at least three making contact. Some of those trapped are unhurt, awaiting rescue.
A local state of emergency has been declared and the city is being patrolled by soldiers in armored personnel carriers.
“There are people alive and still trapped in that rubble, no matter how hopeless the site might appear ... we have people alive and are going to get them out,” Mayor Parker said.
It is the country’s worst natural disaster since a 1931 quake in the North Island city of Napier which killed 256. Christchurch Hospital saw an influx of injured residents, with broken limbs, crush injuries and lacerations.
“Some had to have their limbs amputated to get them out, and others have had amputation from the injury itself,” said Mike Ardagh, head of Christchurch hospital’s emergency department.
“Some have sadly died...of those who had a chance, some haven’t been able to make it.”
Christchurch, known as the Garden City, has been described as a little piece of England. It has an iconic cathedral, now largely destroyed, and a river called the Avon. It boasts several English-language schools and is a springboard for tours of the scenic South Island.
Thousands of people spent Tuesday night in emergency shelters set up in local schools and at a race course. Fresh water supplies were being distributed from schools and portable toilets set up around the city as services were disrupted.
The city has been shaken by more than 50 aftershocks since the initial magnitude 6.3 shake, bringing down more debris.
There have been offers of help from the United States and Japan, with the first of 148 search and rescue specialists from neighboring Australia, including sniffer dogs, arriving.
New Zealand police have asked Australia to send up to 300 officers to assist in security.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth offered her sympathy for the former British colony and said in a statement she was “utterly shocked.”
The quake struck at lunchtime, sending shop awnings and building facades crashing into streets filled with office workers and shoppers -- in contrast to last year’s even stronger tremor, which struck at night when streets were virtually empty.
New Zealand sits between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates and records on average more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, of which about 20 would normally top magnitude 5.0.
Additional reporting by Mantik Kusjanto in WELLINGTON; Writing by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Mark Bendeich