- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand | One of New Zealand’s biggest cities lay in ruins Tuesday after a powerful earthquake toppled tall buildings and churches on a busy weekday, killing at least 65 people in the country’s worst natural disaster in decades.

The quake even shook a massive chunk of ice from New Zealand’s biggest glacier, some 120 miles to the east of Christchurch, where most of the damage was reported.

More than 100 people, including as many as a dozen visiting Japanese students, were thought to be trapped in the rubble as darkness and drizzling rain fell Tuesday night.

Rescue crews with sniffer dogs fanned out across the city in search of survivors, some of whom were able to send text messages or make phone calls from under the wreckage.

It was the second major quake to hit Christchurch, a city of 350,000, in five months, though Tuesday’s 6.3 magnitude temblor caused far more destruction than a stronger September quake that struck before dawn on a weekend.

“It is 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. “We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day.”

The spire of the city’s well-known stone cathedral toppled into a central square, while multistory buildings collapsed in on themselves and streets were 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 and car alarms blared.

Ambulance services were quickly overwhelmed, and some victims clutching bleeding wounds were carried to private vehicles in makeshift stretchers fashioned from rugs or bits of debris.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker declared a state of emergency and ordered people to evacuate the city center. He said it was impossible to say how many people were trapped in the rubble, but that it was estimated to be more than 100.

“The government is willing to throw everything it can in the rescue effort,” Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said. “Time is going to be of essence.”

Troops were deployed to help people get out and to throw up a security cordon around the stricken area, and residents throughout the city were urged to stay home or with neighbors and conserve water and food.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the temblor was centered 3 miles from the city at a depth of 2.5 miles. It was felt across a large part of the South Island and caused damage in nearby towns.

The USGS said the latest quake was part of an “aftershock sequence” following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 4. That quake wrecked hundreds of buildings, inflicted an estimated $3 billion in damage, but caused no deaths.