Powerful 7.1 quake hits New Zealand's South Island

By Ry Lilley/The Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck much of New Zealand’s South Island early Saturday and caused widespread damage, but there were just two reports of serious injuries. Looters broke into some damaged shops in Christchurch, police said.

The quake, which hit 19 miles (30 kilometers) west of the southern city of Christchurch according to the state geological agency GNS Science, shook a wide area, with some residents saying buildings had collapsed and power was severed. No tsunami alert was issued.

GNS Science initially reported the quake as magnitude 7.4, but later downgraded it after re-examining quake records. The U.S. Geological Survey, in America, measured the quake at 7.0.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker declared a state of emergency four hours after the quake rocked the region, warning people that continuing aftershocks could cause masonry to fall from damaged buildings.

The emergency meant parts of the city would be closed off and some buildings closed as unsafe, he said.

Minister of Civil Defense John Carter said a state of civil emergency was declared as the quake was “a significant disaster,” and army troops were on standby to assist.

Parker said the “sharp, vicious earthquake has caused significant damage in parts of the city … with walls collapsed that have fallen into the streets.”

Chimneys and walls had fallen from older buildings, with roads blocked, traffic lights out and power, gas and water supplies disrupted, he said.

“The fronts of at least five buildings in the central city have collapsed and rubble is strewn across many roads,” Christchurch resident Angela Morgan told The Associated Press.

“Roads have subsided where water mains have broken and a lot of people evacuated in panic from seaside areas for fear of a tsunami,” she said, adding that “there is quite significant damage, really, with reports that some people were trapped in damaged houses.”

Christchurch fire service spokesman Mike Bowden said a number of people had been trapped in buildings by fallen chimneys and blocked entrances, but there were no reports of people pinned under rubble. Rescue teams were out checking premises.

Christchurch Hospital said it had treated two men with serious injuries and a number of people with minor injuries.

One man was hit by a falling chimney and was in serious condition in intensive care, while a second was badly cut by glass, hospital spokeswoman Michele Hider said.

Christchurch police reported road damage in parts of the city of 400,000 people, with a series of sharp aftershocks rocking the area. Police officers cordoned off some streets where rubble was strewn about. Video showed parked cars crushed by heaps of fallen bricks, and buckled roads.

“There is considerable damage in the central city and we’ve also had reports of looting, just shop windows broken and easy picking of displays,” Police Inspector Mike Coleman told New Zealand’s National Radio.

Police Inspector Alf Stewart told the radio that some people had been arrested for looting.

“We have some reports of people smashing (storefront) windows and trying to grab some property that is not theirs … we’ve got police on the streets and we’re dealing with that,” he said.

Suburban dweller Mark O’Connell said his house was full of smashed glass, food tossed from shelves, with sets of drawers, TVs and computers tipped over.

“She was a beauty, we were thrown from wall to wall as we tried to escape down the stairs to get to safety,” he told the AP. “It was pitch black (with the power cut) and we walked through smashed glass everywhere on the floor.”

The quake hit at 4:35 a.m. (1635 GMT) shaking thousands of residents awake, New Zealand’s National Radio reported. Some 12 aftershocks have rocked the region since, ranging from 5.3 to 3.9 in magnitude, GNS Science reported on its web site.

Prime Minister John Key, Carter and Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee were to fly to Christchurch to inspect damage and review the situation, officials said.

Civil defense agency spokesman David Millar said at least six bridges in the region had been badly damaged, while the historic Empire hotel in the port town of Lyttelton was “very unstable” and in danger of collapse. Roads, shops and other buildings in rural towns around Christchurch had also suffered damage, with some shop fronts knocked down in the jolt.

Inspector Coleman said residents of the city’s low-lying eastern suburbs had been advised to be ready to evacuate their properties, after power, gas, sewerage and water systems were cut by the quake.

Resident Colleen Simpson said panicked residents ran into the street in their pajamas. Some buildings had collapsed, there was no power, and the mobile telephone network had failed.

“Oh my God. There is a row of shops completely demolished right in front of me,” Simpson told the Stuff news Web site.

Kiwirail rail transport group spokesman Kevin Ramshaw said 13 mostly freight trains had been halted on South Island lines, with some damage already confirmed to rail lines north of Christchurch.

Christchurch International Airport was closed after the quake as a precaution, as experts checked runways and terminal buildings, a spokesman said.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said “no destructive widespread tsunami threat existed, based on historical earthquake and tsunami data.”

New Zealand sits above an area of the Earth’s crust where two tectonic plates collide. The country records more than 14,000 earthquakes a year — but only about 150 are felt by residents. Fewer than 10 a year do any damage.

New Zealand’s last major earthquake was a magnitude 7.8 in South Island’s Fiordland region on July 16, 2009 — a tremblor which moved the southern tip of the country 12 inches (30 centimeters) closer to Australia, seismologist Ken Gledhill said at the time.

Gledhill, director of GNS Science’s “GeoNet” national earthquake monitoring project, said the island’s geographic shift showed the immensity of the forces involved.