WELLINGTON (Reuters) – A strong quake hit New Zealand’s second-biggest city of Christchurch on Tuesday for the second time in five months, toppling buildings, causing “multiple fatalities,” trapping people beneath rubble and sparking fires.

Local TV showed bodies being pulled out of rubble strewn around the city center, though it was unclear whether any of them were alive, but police reported “multiple fatalities” after the 6.3 magnitude quake struck during the busy lunchtime.

Unlike last year’s even stronger tremor, which struck early in the morning when streets were virtually empty, the streets, shops and offices in the city of almost 400,000 were thronging with people when the shallow tremor struck.

It hit at 12:51 pm (2351 GMT Monday) at a depth of only 4 km (2.5 miles), according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Web site.

“It’s huge, it’s just huge,” a priest told a TV reporter outside the remains of the city’s stone cathedral, part of which had been reduced to a pile of large sandstone blocks.

“I just don’t know whether there are people under this rubble,” he said, before he appeared to add in a quiet voice: “I think so.”

The tremor was centered about 10 km southwest of Christchurch, which had suffered widespread damage during last September’s 7.1 magnitude quake but no deaths.

“There has been a lot of damage, our TVs have been smashed and there are big cracks in the house. Neighbors have lost brick fences,” Nicholas Hextall, who lives in central Christchurch, said by phone. Power and water had been cut.

The region has been struck by thousands of aftershocks since the original quake.

New Zealand, which sits between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates, records on average more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, of which about 20 would normally top magnitude 5.0.

Advertisements