AS AUSTRALIA watched in horror the live footage of the earthquake that devastated Christchurch, Rosebank’s Sandra Becker was frantically trying to get in touch with her two nieces and sister-in-law who live there.
“I knew one of them worked at a solicitor’s office in the city,” she said. “Most solicitors are centred around the square where the cathedral is and I heard a couple of the buildings had concertinaed down.”
With phone lines down and initial reports suggesting “multiple fatalities” and possibly hundreds more trapped in the rubble, Ms Becker posted a message on Facebook asking her family to contact her.
To her relief her niece posted a short message that all had escaped injury.
They were lucky. The death toll of 65 is expected to climb over the next couple of days.
“We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day,” the country’s Prime Minister John Key said.
“This is an absolute tragedy for this city and for the people we care so much about... it’s a terrifying time for the people of Canterbury.”
The tremor, measuring 6.3 in magnitude, brought down buildings on two buses, fractured gas and water mains, started fires, and badly damaged phone networks. Since then there has been a series of aftershocks, the strongest at magnitude 5.7.
In the city's darkness tonight, search and rescue teams are combing through the destruction, hopeful of finding survivors.
“We have to be prepared to accept that it is going to be a heavy toll,” Civil Defence director John Hamilton said earlier in the evening.
Search and rescue teams from NSW are leaving for Christchurch, including two NSW Police Force officers, one of whom is a disaster victim identification specialist.
Today's quake, although not as severe as the one that struck the city in September, did much more damage because it was shallower and its epicentre was only 10km from the city, said Dr Gary Gibson, principal research fellow in the school of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne.