Earthquake strikes NZ South Island

Power out, significant damage reported

Updated Sept. 4 10:04 am Beijing time

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake damaged buildings, cut power and knocked fleeing residents off their feet on New Zealand's South Island early Saturday, but there were so far no deaths and only two injuries reported.

There was no immediate indication of disruption to productions in the area. New Zealand has become a favorite shooting location in recent years for its scenery and low production costs. The country was a major location for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and other films including "The Last Samurai."

No major musical acts are currently touring New Zealand. Metallica is due to play two dates for its "Death Magnetic" world tour in Christchurch later this month, on Sept. 21-22, with Fear Factory and The Sword as special guests. There was no immediate indication from the band about the status of the shows, slated for the CBS Canterbury Arena.

Panicked residents in their pajamas ran into the streets of the southern city of Christchurch after the pre-dawn quake, residents said. There were reports of some people trapped in damaged buildings — though none appeared to be crushed by rubble — and a few looters broke into some of the damaged shops in the city of 400,000, authorities said.

Chimneys and walls had fallen from older buildings, roads had been blocked, traffic lights out and power, gas and water supplies disrupted, Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said. He warned that continuing aftershocks could cause masonry to fall from damaged buildings.

"The fronts of at least five buildings in the central city have collapsed, and rubble is strewn across many roads," Christchurch resident Angela Morgan told The Associated Press. "There is quite significant damage, really, with reports that some people were trapped in damaged houses."

Suburban dweller Mark O'Connell said his house was full of smashed glass, food tossed from shelves, with sets of drawers, TVs and computers tipped over.

"We were thrown from wall to wall as we tried to escape down the stairs to get to safety," he told the AP.

The quake, which hit 19 miles (30 kilometers) west of Christchurch according to the state geological agency GNS Science, shook a wide area, with some residents saying buildings had collapsed and power was severed. No tsunami alert was issued.

GNS Science initially reported the quake as magnitude 7.4, but later downgraded it after re-examining quake records. The U.S. Geological Survey, in America, measured the quake at 7.0.

Army troops were on standby to assist, minister of civil defense John Carter said, as a state of civil emergency was declared.

"I think we've been extremely lucky as a nation that there's been no fatalities," Carter told reporters, though he said infrastructure damage was major. Earthquake and insurance specialists would give government an initial damage assessment within 48 hours, he said.

Parker said the quake caused "a lot of damage to our key infrastructure ... water, waste water (sewerage) systems ... but the most important thing is that there has been no loss of life."

Christchurch fire service spokesman Mike Bowden said a number of people had been trapped in buildings by fallen chimneys and blocked entrances, but there were no reports of people pinned under rubble. Rescue teams were out checking premises.

Christchurch Hospital said it had treated two men with serious injuries and a number of people with minor injuries.

One man was hit by a falling chimney and was in serious condition in intensive care, while a second was badly cut by glass, hospital spokeswoman Michele Hider said.

Christchurch police reported road damage in parts of the city of 400,000 people, with a series of sharp aftershocks rocking the area. Police officers cordoned off some streets where rubble was strewn about. Video showed parked cars crushed by heaps of fallen bricks, and buckled roads.

"There is considerable damage in the central city and we've also had reports of looting, just shop windows broken and easy picking of displays," Police inspector Mike Coleman told New Zealand's National Radio.

Police inspector Al Stewart told the radio that some people had been arrested for looting.

"We have some reports of people smashing (storefront) windows and trying to grab some property that is not theirs ... we've got police on the streets and we're dealing with that," he said.

The quake hit at 4:35 a.m. (1635 GMT) shaking thousands of residents awake, New Zealand's National Radio reported. Some 12 aftershocks have rocked the region since, ranging from 5.3 to 3.9 in magnitude, GNS Science reported on its website.

Prime minister John Key, Carter and energy minister Gerry Brownlee were to fly to
Christchurch to inspect damage and review the situation, officials said.

Key said his sister, who lives in Christchurch, messaged him that "they had had an enormous earthquake and it had been terrifying ... that it went on for so long and was so violent they were getting knocked off their feet."

Civil defense agency spokesman David Millar said at least six bridges in the region had been badly damaged, while the historic Empire hotel in the port town of Lyttelton was "very unstable" and in danger of collapse. Several wharves at the port had been damaged, while roads, shops and other buildings in rural towns around Christchurch had also suffered damage, with some shop fronts knocked down in the jolt.

Inspector Coleman said residents of the city's low-lying eastern suburbs had been advised to be ready to evacuate their properties, after power, gas, sewerage and water systems were cut by the quake.

Resident Colleen Simpson said panicked residents ran into the street in their pajamas. Some buildings had collapsed, there was no power, and the mobile telephone network had failed.

"Oh my God. There is a row of shops completely demolished right in front of me," Simpson told the Stuff news Web site.

Kiwirail rail transport group spokesman Kevin Ramshaw said 13 mostly freight trains had been halted on South Island lines, with some damage already confirmed to rail lines north of Christchurch.

Christchurch International Airport was closed after the quake as a precaution, as experts checked runways and terminal buildings, a spokesman said.

New Zealand sits above an area of the Earth's crust where two tectonic plates collide. The country records more than 14,000 earthquakes a year — but only about 150 are felt by residents. Fewer than 10 a year do any damage.

New Zealand's last major earthquake was a magnitude 7.8 in South Island's Fiordland region on July 16, 2009 — a temblor that moved the southern tip of the country 12 inches (30 centimeters) closer to Australia, seismologist Ken Gledhill said at the time.

-- Steven Schwankert contributed to this report.
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