Fears are growing of more deaths in the 7.8-strength earthquake that struck much of New Zealand around midnight local time.
Two people are confirmed dead – a man trapped in a heritage homestead at Kaikoura, in the north of the South Island, and a North Canterbury person who died of a heart attack attributed to the earthquake.
Police are searching for a truck driver who has not been heard from since 12.03am. The driver was last reported about 30km south of Kaikoura.
A spokesperson for Christchurch-based STL Linehaul Ltd said the company had “a whole heap of drivers” in the region and was trying to track them all down.
There are unconfirmed reports of at least one person trapped in a landslide north of Kaikoura.
The massive earthquake was centred about 20km southeast of Hanmer Springs, not far from Kaikoura, and 16km deep. Felt across the country and leading to a national tsunami warning and evacuations from seaside towns, the quake was a greater magnitude than the two which did so much damage to Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.
A 100-year-old woman and her daughter-in-law were rescued from the rubble of an historic homestead in Kaikoura. But the women’s son and husband was killed in the earthquake.
The Elms Homestead collapsed and rescuers spent hours searching for the three residents. The Fire Service said one woman was able to escape the large home while the other was rescued. The man did not survive.
Well-known locals Pam and Louis Edgar live at the Kaikoura property with Louis’ 100-year-old mother, Margaret.
The women have “lost everything,” said a relative.
Relatives are desperately trying to get into Kaikoura, the coastal town famous for its whale-watching safaris, which has been cut off by large slips blocking the only access roads.
Helicopters are being used to evacuate people from the town of 2000 people, which – like many places around the country – has no power, water or working sewerage system. Police are also airlifting tourists and campervan travellers from the popular tourist spot.
More than 250 aftershocks hit the South Island and lower North Island in 12 hours since the quake. One 6.6-strength aftershock struck 30km north of Cheviot, a coastal town between Kaikoura and Hanmer Springs, early this afternoon. A 5.4-strength aftershock struck near Seddon, on the west coast of the South Island.
Prime Minister John Key is inspecting damage around Kaikoura and the surrounding Marlborough region with Labour Party leader Andrew Little and a small group of journalists on an Air Force helicopter.
Key said the 111 national emergency phone system (similar to 000 in Australia) had failed during the quake and that was “deeply worrying”.
The emergency services response was hampered because the 111 system experienced delays in the worst-hit areas. Key promised a review.
He was less concerned about the prospect of a tsunami. The best advice from GNS, the government geotechnical service, was that because the quake wasn’t going to cause a tsunami because it was centred on land.
“The good news is we had very good systems and it was those indicators that measure the tide movement that alerted to us that the earthquake had moved the plates and moved out to sea.”
Earlier today Key met Hungarian President Janos Ader who offered sympathy and support. Key was supposed to leave tomorrow for Argentina and an APEC meeting in Peru, but has cancelled the Argentina leg of the trip.
CAPITAL IN LOCKDOWN
Wellington is in shutdown as engineers examine earthquake damage to buildings in the CBD, but business in the capital is “resilient”, the Chamber of Commerce says.
Wellington’s CBD is closed while inner-city buildings are assessed for damage, KiwiRail has postponed rail and ferry services in and out of the city, but Wellington Airport is operating as usual.
New Zealand’s central bank and stock exchange officials say the nation’s payments systems is unscathed and the stock market will open as normal.
Wellington Chamber of Commerce CEO John Milford said the capital was “resilient” after a 2013 quake.
“Given that we had those couple of shakes a few years ago, businesses here have plans in place for what needs to happen.”
Businesses that could operate remotely should do so, he said.
Milford said it was too early to assess the cost of such an event on the capital, but confirmed there were reports of damage to buildings.
Wellington businesses Xero and TradeMe have told staff to work remotely, but neither anticipate any disruption.
RICHIE TO THE RESCUE
Richie McCaw has joined the rescue efforts. The recently retired rugby superstar is now a commercial helicopter pilot.
After a rude awakening this morning, he has been flying rescue and reconnaissance missions.
“Like everyone else, I got woken up at midnight… yeah, a bit scary,” he said.
At first light, he helped fly two urban search and rescue teams to the Kaikoura tragedy.
“From there, we took the Fire Service just north and south of Kaikoura to check out all the slips and make sure everyone was accounted for,” he said.
From the air, McCaw said he saw “big cracks in the road, cracks in the side of the hills, and obviously slips”.
“At one point, the railway was way out over the sea – it had been pushed out by slips. It would not have been a nice place to be at midnight last night.”