NEW ZEALAND suffered its worst natural disaster for 80 years yesterday when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch, killing at least75 people.
In the most dramatic symbol of what John Key, the prime minister, described as his nation's "darkest day", the spire on the city's Anglican cathedral was sent crashing to earth shortly after the quake hit at 12.51pm.
Tourists and shoppers in the cobbled streets below fled as New Zealand's second largest city was blanketed in a shroud of dust.
Early reports claimed that more than 200 people had been trapped, but this was later revised to 100.
"When the shaking had stopped I looked out of the window, which gives a great view on to Christchurch, and there was just dust," said Barry Corbett, a city councillor. "It was evident straight away that a lot of buildings had gone."
In the centre of the city, where the multi-storey Pyne Gould Guinness building had collapsed, rescuers worked to free an unknown number of people trapped inside.
The city of 390,000 on New Zealand's South Island reeled under the impact of two aftershocks, which destroyed more already-weakened buildings.
The US Geological Survey said the epicentre was only three miles from the middle of the city, at a depth of 2.5 miles.
Scientists said the proximity and shallowness of the quake accounted for its huge destructive force.
As emergency services were mobilised, Christchurch's mayor, Bob Parker, estimated that up to 100 people had been trapped, including 12 Japanese children who were visiting a school.
The city was still recovering from the battering inflicted by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake last September that damaged up to 100,000 buildings but did not kill anyone, something that Mr Key described as a "miracle" at the time.
But there was no miracle on Sunday. New Zealand was left to absorb the cost of its worst natural disaster since 1931, when 256 people were killed by a quake in Napier on the North Island.
"We may well be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day. The death toll I have at the moment is 65 and that may rise," Mr Key said in a television interview.
"It's hard to describe. What was a vibrant city a few hours ago has been brought to its knees."
As columns of smoke rose above the city, rescue forces used helicopters to pick up stranded survivors from the roofs of cracked and collapsed buildings, while others were saved from burning balconies by firemen using a nearby construction crane.
Rescuers made stretchers from rugs or bits of debris to drag the injured out of buildings, many of whom were clutching bleeding wounds. Private vehicles were used to take survivors to hospital.
Rescue efforts were impeded as streets across the city, which is built on sand and silt foundations, were flooded by a thick sludge which one resident said was a foot deep in places.
As night fell, emergency services began putting up tents in parks on the outskirts of the city to provide shelter for those left homeless. Rescue teams continued working under searchlights to try to establish how many people were trapped. (© Daily Telegraph, London)