DAZED, screaming and crying residents wandered the streets as sirens and car alarms blared. With ambulance services overwhelmed, some victims were carried to private vehicles in makeshift stretchers fashioned from rugs or bits of debris.
Known in New Zealand as the Garden City, last night the "garden" of Christchurch looked anything but rosy.
The rescue teams worked under floodlights . A local state of emergency was declared and the city centre was cordoned off and patrolled by troops in armoured personnel carriers.
"A significant number of people have been got out of buildings alive," an ambulance spokesman said.
"Of course we also find deceased people in the rubble."
It was the country's worst natural disaster since an earthquake in 1931 in the North Island city of Napier killed 256 people.
On the way into the city, a Reuters correspondent saw buckled roads, toppled buildings and pools of water. Police and the army were patrolling the streets.
Christchurch has been described as a little piece of England.
It has an iconic cathedral, now largely destroyed, and a river called the Avon. It had many historic stone buildings and is popular with English-language students and with tourists visiting the scenic South Island.
Emergency shelters were erected in schools and at a race course.
Helicopters were used to try to douse a fire in one office building, while a crane was used to help workers trapped in another office block.
"I was in the square right outside the cathedral -- the whole front has fallen down and there were people running from there. There were people inside as well," said John Gurr, a camera technician who was in the city centre when the quake hit.
Aerial TV footage of surroundings suburbs showed once-elegant homes in ruins and roads cut off by huge boulders.