CHRISTCHURCH, Feb 23 (IANS) - A day after a massive earthquake hit New Zealand's second largest city of Christchurch killing at least 75 people, the government Wednesday declared a state of emergency as authorities said the toll could rise to several hundred.
According to Civil Defence Minister John Carter, the declaration of a National Emergency reflects the likelihood that Tuesday's quake may prove to be New Zealand's worst natural disaster, the New Zealand Herald reported.
"We felt it was justified in this case because of the devastation that's occurred and the likely impact it will have on so many people," the minister was quoted as saying.
The confirmed toll from Tuesday's devastating 6.3-magnitude quake stands at 75, with 300 reported missing. The quake hit the central city, a business hub of New Zealand, at 12.51 p.m. when office buildings and streets were packed with people.
The state of emergency was declared for the first time in the country's history, DPA reported.
Police said more than 100 people may have been lost in Christchurch's quake-ravaged Canterbury TV (CTV) station building, which they said is "unsurvivable".
But police expect the death toll to climb and it will do so appreciably if the estimates about those missing in the CTV building are correct.
Fifteen CTV staff and a number of Japanese students from a foreign language school that operated in the building are believed to be among those in the rubble, the daily said.
Police gave the estimates of between 80 and more than 100 for those missing in the CTV building. A senior police officer said he was "100 percent sure" there were no survivors in the building.
Many crushed cars, offices and homes have been marked as possibly containing bodies.
Specialist search and rescue teams have been flying in from around the world and 500 of them are expected to shortly join the 200 currently at work, with more than 1,000 medical staff, police and military assisting.
In 1931, an earthquake hit New Zealand's northern Napier city, killing 256 people. But Carter said until the toll and damage from Tuesday's quake was confirmed, "it's difficult to make those sorts of comparisons".
"I don't think it would be appropriate for me or any one else to speculate on that," he said.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said there were now 55 identified bodies at a morgue, which had been set up at local military base.
Another 20 bodies had been recovered, but were not yet at the morgue and had yet to be identified.
Parker said it was hoped that many of those 300 missing people would be accounted for over the course of the day.
Search and rescue staff also said many people remain trapped alive inside buildings destroyed by the quake.
More than 120 people had already been pulled out from collapsed buildings as rescuers worked through the night under floodlights in the rain.
Search efforts are focussed on around 10 buildings, where it is feared more than 100 people could still be trapped. These included a number of Japanese students who had been studying English in Christchurch.
Civil Defence national controller David Coetzee said search and rescue teams could continue looking for survivors Wednesday night.
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said about 1,000 defence personnel were deployed in the rescue efforts.
Power was out to 50 percent of the city, water was in short supply and sewage systems were seriously damaged and would not be fixed for some time.
Prime Minister John Key said the quake had brought "death and destruction on a dreadful scale".
He said there was no question the earthquake would have a significant economic impact on Christchurch and New Zealand.
"We're going to have to go back and reassess every building," Key said, adding that the earthquake was estimated to have cost $6-8 billion.
The country's flags were flying half-mast on all government buildings Wednesday to honour the victims of the devastating quake.