Wellington, Feb 22 (DPA): A 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch today in New Zealand's South Island causing widespread destruction with reports of many deaths.
Police said the quake caused deaths in the central city, including two buses crushed by falling buildings, but released no casualty figures. There were other reports of bodies being pulled out of buildings and crushed cars.
Government officials would not confirm the deaths, but warned that people should prepare for bad news.
Police said emergency services were battling a number of fires and trying to rescue many people trapped in collapsed buildings.
Members of the public have posted videos of destruction including buildings and cars being crushed in rock slides in suburbs including Sumner and Lyytleton.
Aftershocks were still being felt as buildings were evacuated and people fled the central city area. Officials asked people to stay off roads as emergency services and the military struggled to get to areas where people could be trapped.
Prime Minister John Key was travelling to the site to inspect the damage.
Witnesses said the ground lifted up to one metre in places. The New Zealand Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences said the epicentre was near Christchurch, at a depth of five km. The quake, which struck at 12.51 pm, would have caused more damage than a previous 7.1 earthquake Sep 4 because of its shallow depth, the institute said.
The September quake, with an epicentre 30 km west of the city at a depth of 33 km, struck in the early morning when city was largely empty. As a result there were no fatalities last year.
Tuesday's quake brought down power lines, ruptured pipes and forced the closure and evacuation of many buildings including the airport and university, and disrupted phone communications.
"We've had friends in town call us and say there are just bodies lying around; lots of dead bodies outside shops just lying there just covered in bricks," Christchurch resident Jaydn Katene told New Zealand Herald.
"When it hit we were knocked to our feet. Everything in the house fell down, nothing was left still standing. There's more damage than the first earthquake, the roads are completely torn up; sewage coming up and flooding. It's crazy.
"The elderly are all crying. The next-door neighbours around us were all bawling their eyes out, it was horrible. People can't get out of their houses," said Katene.
He said he has seen "cars halfway sunken into the road. We've heard there's a bus which is sunken halfway into the road just around the corner...Buildings are half-collapsed everywhere... Houses are all collapsing. It's pretty shocking; a total warzone."