The death toll from Tuesday’s earthquake in Christchurch is expected to more than double after police warned it was unlikely that any of the estimated 80 to 100 people inside the collapsed TV building in the city centre would be pulled out alive.
The 6.3-magnitude quake is known to have claimed the lives of 75 people but up to 300 are still missing.
As the grim search for the missing entered a second night, the police admitted they had switched from the rescue to the recovery phase.
John Key, prime minister, said much of what remained of Christchurch’s central business district would need to be demolished amid fears the 26-storey Grand Chancellor Hotel may collapse.
“We are witnessing the havoc caused by a violent and ruthless act of nature. Many people have lost their lives. Families have lost their cherished loved ones. Mates have lost their mates,” he said.
The city’s centre has been cordoned off and is under curfew due to fears of falling buildings. The police have also made six arrests for looting.
Many homes in the city are without power, water, or fixed phone lines.
Christchurch was hit by a bigger, 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September, but it escaped casualties on that occasion, partly because it struck in the early hours when most people were at home.
An estimated 120 people had been pulled from the rubble by early Wednesday morning, local media said. Bob Parker, the mayor of Christchurch, said the death toll was likely to rise.
The quake is the country’s worst natural disaster since 1931, when a quake killed 256 in the North Island city of Napier.
“We need to prepare ourselves for a significant number of casualties,” said Mr Parker.
The tragedy has struck at a time when New Zealand’s fragile economic recovery has ground to a halt. After a protracted recession that began at the start of 2008, the economy shrank again in the third quarter of last year and growth in the fourth quarter is likely to have been anaemic at best.
Mr Key, leader of the centre-right National party that governs with the support of minor parties, said last month that the country’s next election would be held in November. He set the date early because New Zealand is due to host the rugby World Cup in September and October.
Hours after arriving in Christchurch on Tuesday, Mr Key said the nation was facing its “darkest day”.
“The city has been utterly wrecked by the earthquake,” he said.
The stone cathedral in the central square was badly damaged and lost its spire, while dozens of people were trapped in collapsed office buildings in the city centre. Screams were heard from some of the many other buildings flattened by the quake.
Dazed and bloodied workers were seen wandering in the streets. Police vehicles evacuated scores of injured to the city’s hospital due to a shortage of ambulances.
“The city centre is like a war zone,” Mr Parker added. “We need to prepare ourselves for a significant number of casualties.”
Rescue efforts were being hampered by dangerous conditions, rain and 13 aftershocks.
An estimated 2,000 people are either homeless or have been prevented from returning to their hotels in the city centre, according to local media.
Roland Randall, senior strategist at TD Securities, said rebuilding costs from last year’s earthquake were already significant for New Zealand’s strained government finances.
He estimated total costs of about NZ$4bn ($3bn) shared between the country’s Earthquake Commission, private insurance and individuals.
“The addition of this potentially more damaging quake will make it even harder for New Zealand to meet its commitment to return the budget to surplus by 2015-16,” he said.
The quake also caused widespread damage to roads and homes and shut the city’s airport.
It caused some 30m tons of ice to break off from New Zealand’s biggest
glacier. Tour guides at the Tasman Glacier in the Southern Alps say the quake caused the ice to “calve” from the glacier.
Additional reporting by AP and Reuters
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