WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) " A strong, 6.3-magnitude earthquake rocked the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch on Tuesday, seriously injuring people and damaging buildings throughout the city.
Police said there were reports of multiple fatalities, but Prime Minister John Key told Parliament details were still too shaky for those reports to be confirmed.
Live video footage showed parts of buildings collapsed into the streets, which were strewn with bricks and shattered concrete. Sidewalks and roads were cracked and split, and hundreds of dazed, screaming and crying residents wandered through the streets as sirens blared throughout the city.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said he was on the top floor of the city council building when the quake hit just before 1 p.m. local time, throwing him across the room.
"I got down onto the street and there were scenes of great confusion, a lot of very upset people," he said. "I know of people in our building who are injured and I've had some reports of serious injuries throughout the city."
Radio New Zealand reported that a church near the city center collapsed. The station also said staffers in its Christchurch newsroom had to cling to their desks during the shaking, with large filing cabinets toppling over.
"The details we have are extremely sketchy," the prime minister told Parliament. "The worrying fear, of course, is that this earthquake has taken place at a time when people were going about their business " it is a very populated time, with people at work, children at school. Sadly, I cannot rule out that there have been fatalities.
"But we are aware of significant damage to buildings that had people in them at the time," he said.
Key said people were being told to get out of the city for their safety.
Other officials said there were unconfirmed reports of deaths from the earthquake.
New Zealand police said in a statement that there were reports of multiple fatalities in the city, including a report that two buses had been crushed by falling buildings. The police statement said there were other reports of fires burning in the city and people being trapped in buildings.
The airport was closed and Christchurch Hospital was evacuated. Power and telephone lines were knocked out, and pipes burst, flooding the streets with water. Some cars apparently parked on the street were buried under rubble.
"What I can see from where I am in the central city is that there are significant amounts of additional damage," Parker said.
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). A 5.6-magnitude aftershock hit shortly after 7 miles (11 kilometers) east of the city at a depth of 3.7 miles (6 kilometers).
"When the shaking had stopped I looked out of the window, which gives a great view onto Christchurch, and there was just dust," said city councilman Barry Corbett, who was on one of the top floors of the city council building when the quake struck. "It was evident straight away that a lot of buildings had gone."
Christchurch has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Sept. 4 last year, causing extensive damage and a handful of injuries, but no deaths.
The city is home to about 350,000 people and is considered a tourist center and gateway to the South Island.
New Zealand sits on the Pacific "ring of fire" " an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching from Chile in South America through Alaska and down through the South Pacific. It records more than 14,000 earthquakes a year " but only about 150 are felt by residents, and fewer than 10 a year do any damage.
The Sept. 4 quake wrecked hundreds of buildings in the city, and caused an estimated 4 billion New Zealand dollars ($3 billion) in damage. A strong aftershock in December caused further damage to buildings.
The city was still rebuilding from those quakes when Tuesday's temblor hit.Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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