NZ city like a 'war zone' after quake
Christchurch worst hit after tremor
Published 05/09/2010 | 05:00
Markham McMullen has lived through many earthquakes -- but the one that hurled him from his bed early on Saturday was unlike anything he'd felt before.
As New Zealand was rocked by its most significant earthquake in 80 years, Mr McMullen and his wife picked themselves up from the floor, grabbed their daughter and huddled under a doorway, watching helplessly as their home disintegrated around them. "It just kept coming," he said. "It went and on and on."
The picturesque rural town of Darfield, set among mountains and rivers where Mr McMullen is headmaster of a primary school, was the epicentre of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck the South Island at 4.30am.
"It was absolutely terrifying," he said. "The TV was flying around the room. Our china cabinet has crashed, pictures are off the wall, anything high up has come down and the cat has gone. He is probably still heading south.
"I've been in a few big quakes, but nothing like this. It really flexed and the aftershocks were the other thing. They just kept hitting."
For New Zealanders not old enough to remember the 1931 magnitude 7.8 Hawke's Bay earthquake, yesterday's tremor was a shocking show of the earth's power. Although the country lies on seismic fault and experiences more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, only about 20 have a magnitude in excess of 5.0.
A state of emergency was declared and an overnight curfew imposed in the city of Christchurch, which was badly hit.
"Tonight we're just people in the face of a massive natural disaster, trying to help each other, and we're grateful we haven't lost a life," said Bob Parker, the mayor of the city, which has a population of 350,000 and was 30 miles from the epicentre.
As dusk fell on scenes of devastation, fears were mounting of health risks from fractured sewage pipes and residents were warned to boil drinking water.
Older buildings unable to withstand the shaking had collapsed into rubble, while brick facades fell away from others, exposing the rooms and furniture behind them.
Witnesses described parts of the city as "looking like a war zone".
Gas mains were severed, power lines brought down, roads ripped up, bridges destroyed or made unsafe, and many vehicles damaged in Christchurch and across the wider Canterbury region. The Avon River in Avonside overflowed its banks.
Even some roads that remained undamaged were impassable because they were littered with debris from stricken buildings.
Many chimneys tumbled, sending showers of bricks through house roofs, and large swathes of suburban streets were knee-deep in floodwater from broken water mains and sewage pipes.
Furniture toppled over, windows shattered, and possessions were smashed after being shaken off shelves in homes and shops.
Christchurch Hospital was inundated with casualties, mainly cuts and fractures, although at least two people were in a serious condition.
One was a man in his 50s who was hit by a falling chimney, while another man was badly cut by glass.
Ten people were admitted with suspected heart attacks triggered by shock.
Fire broke out in the shattered city centre. Firemen trying to tackle it were hampered by a lack of water pressure caused by burst mains.
Cases of looting were reported but police quickly responded by increasing their presence in the city centre.
Power companies were struggling to restore electricity supplies to as many people as possible before nightfall, when temperatures were expected to dip to 2C. Last night residents were also braced for a forecast gale that threatened unstable buildings.
"There would not be a house, there would not be a family in our city that has not in some way had damage done to their person, to their property," said Mr Parker.
"It's like an iceberg; there is, below the visible line, significant structural damage."
The effects of the quake were being felt keenly in a country of only four million people, with many having family or friends living in Christchurch
John Key, the prime minister, who flew to Christchurch to inspect the damage, said it was "an absolute miracle" that no one had died.
He warned it could be months before the full extent of the damage was known, but said initial assessments suggested it could cost at least NZ$2bn (€1bn) to repair.
Building experts said that New Zealand's rigorous construction methods meant that the country's buildings were well-equipped to withstand earthquakes.
"New Zealand has very good building codes, which mean the buildings are strong compared with, say, Haiti," said Prof Martha Savage of Victoria University.