Christchurch/New Zealand: At least 65 people died in a powerful earthquake that struck one of New Zealand's biggest cities on Tuesday. The earthquake of 6.3 magnitudes hit the city at the height of a busy workday, toppling tall buildings and churches, crushing buses and killing at.

IN PICS: New Zealand Earthquake

It is being termed as of the country's worst natural disasters, the second major quake to hit Christchurch, a city of 350,000, in five months.

Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude temblor caused far more destruction than a more powerful quake that struck the city during September last year, before dawn on a weekend.

"It is a just a scene of utter devastation," Prime Minister John Key said after rushing to the city within hours of the quake. He said the death toll was 65, and may rise. "This may be New Zealand's darkest day," he told a news channel.

An unknown number of people, including a dozen visiting Japanese students, were feared trapped in the rubble.

The spire of the city's well-known stone cathedral toppled into a central square, while video footage showed multistory buildings collapse like a pack of cards and others with walls that had fallen into streets strewn with bricks and shattered concrete.

Sidewalks and roads were cracked and split, while thousands of dazed, screaming and crying residents wandered through the streets as sirens blared. Groups of people helped victims clutching bleeding wounds, and others were carried to private vehicles in makeshift stretchers fashioned from rugs or bits of debris.

Nathanael Boehm, a web designer, said he was standing near a tram track when the quake struck.

"It was horrific. People were covered in rubble, covered in several tons of concrete," Boehm said, adding that he believed some of them had been crushed to death.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker declared a state of emergency and ordered people to evacuate the city center.

Troops were deployed to help people get out and to throw up a security cordon around the stricken area, said Deputy Prime Minister Bill English.

"The government is willing to throw everything it can in the rescue effort," he said. "Time is going to be of essence."

The airport was closed, and Christchurch Hospital was briefly evacuated before it was deemed safe and patients were returned. Power and telephone lines were knocked out, and pipes burst, flooding the streets with water. Some cars parked on the street were buried under rubble.
Prime Minister Key held an emergency Cabinet meeting then rushed to the stricken city to observe the scene.

He said eight or nine buildings had collapsed, and that officials were working as fast as they can to free an unknown number of people who were trapped.

Some of those stuck were thought to be visiting Japanese students who called their parents back home to say they were in a collapsed building, a Japanese official said. Nine students and two teachers from the Toyama College of Foreign Languages had been rescued, but another 12 students were unaccounted for and could still be trapped, said the official from Toyama Prefecture.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the temblor was centered 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the city at a depth of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). Two large aftershocks — one magnitude 5.6 and another 5.5 — hit the city within two hours, and officials warned people to stay away from damaged buildings because of the danger of further collapses.

A search and rescue team was being flown in from Australia to help in the recovery, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she had offered Key any other support he requested.

The USGS said the latest quake was part of the "aftershock sequence" following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 4 last year. That quake wrecked hundreds of buildings, inflicted an estimated 4 billion New Zealand dollars ($3 billion) in damage, but caused no deaths.

A strong aftershock in December caused further damage to buildings. The city, considered a tourist center, was still rebuilding from those quakes when Tuesday's temblor hit.
The USGS said the latest quake hit "significantly closer to the main population center of Christchurch" than the September quake, which was centered 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of city.

"The critical issue with this earthquake was that the epicenter was at shallow depth under Christchurch, so many people were within 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) of the fault rupture," said Gary Gibson, a seismologist at Australia's Melbourne University.
"Its effect depends on how close it is, and ground shaking will be severe within 10 to 20 kilometers of the rupture," he said.

(With agency inputs)