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Wed 23 Feb 2011 09:28 AM

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New Zealand rescuers sift rubble as death toll hits 75

Rescue teams perform amputations to free some of the survivors pulled from the wreckage of Tuesday's tremor, dozens remain trapped

New Zealand rescuers sift rubble as death toll hits 75
RESCUE OPERATIONS: Rescuers search for survivors in a collapsed building in Manchester Street on February 22, 2011 in Christchurch (Getty Images)

New Zealand rescuers pulled survivors out of rubble on Wednesday 24 hours after a devastating earthquake in Christchurch as the death toll climbed to 75, with many dozens still trapped inside collapsed buildings.

Rescue teams had to perform amputations to free some of the 120 survivors so far pulled from the wreckage of Tuesday's strong tremor, which had hit the country's second-biggest city at lunchtime. The death toll is expected to rise further.

"We are getting texts [sms messages] and tapping sounds from the living and that's our focus at the moment," police shift commander Russell Gibson said on Radio New Zealand.

Early in the afternoon a woman was rescued from a finance company's destroyed four-storey building, having spent a day trapped under a desk. Amid cheers and applause from rescuers the woman, wrapped in blankets, was put into an ambulance.

Rescuers focused their greatest efforts on that building and were searching five others, but hopes faded of finding survivors in another collapsed building, home to a broadcaster and an English language school.

An early report that a group of 15 people had been found there was denied, and among those still unaccounted for at the smoldering ruin site were 10 Japanese students at the school.

"They've told us there's no hope," a distraught woman said as the specialists left the scene where her brother-in-law was caught under the rubble. Around her, tearful relatives of other victims were in shock as they digested the news.

As many as 300 people are still missing a day after the quake, mayor Bob Parker said, but it was unclear how many of these could be explained by communication breakdowns between families, friends and authorities. Previously, Parker said up to around 100 people could be trapped.

Authorities have identified 55 dead bodies and there are another 20 still to be identified. The toll seems certain to rise further as the frantic search effort focuses on survivors ahead of retrieving and identifying corpses.

"There are bodies littering the streets. They're trapped in cars, crushed under rubble, and where they are clearly deceased our focus unfortunately at this time has turned to the living," police commander Gibson said.

Tuesday's 6.3 magnitude quake - the second to hit the historic tourist city in five months - struck when streets and shops were thronged with people, and offices were busy. It was New Zealand's most deadly natural disaster for 80 years.

In central Christchurch, roads were buckled, buildings toppled and large pools of water had welled up from broken water pipes and sewers.

There were fears that one of the city's tallest buildings, the 26-storey Hotel Grand Chancellor, which has sagged in one corner, could collapse and bring down adjoining structures.

The building has been evacuated but rescue teams have been forced to pull back, disrupting nearby searches.

In places, roads had collapsed into a milky, sand-colored lake beneath the surface, the result of Christchurch's sandy foundations mixing with subterranean water under the force of the quake. Officials call it "liquefaction" of the ground.

A national state of emergency has been declared allowing for the control and coordination of rescue resources. Christchurch cit was being patrolled by soldiers with armored personnel carriers.

It is the country's worst natural disaster since a 1931 quake in the North Island city of Napier which killed 256. Christchurch Hospital received an influx of injured residents, with broken limbs, crush injuries and lacerations.

"Some had to have their limbs amputated to get them out, and others have had amputation from the injury itself," said Mike Ardagh, head of Christchurch hospital's emergency department.

"Some have sadly died ... of those who had a chance, some haven't been able to make it."

Christchurch, known as the Garden City, has been described as a little piece of England. It has an iconic cathedral, now largely destroyed, and a river called the Avon. It boasts several English-language schools and is a springboard for tours of the scenic South Island.

Thousands of people were facing a second night in emergency shelters in local schools, community halls and at a racecourse. Fresh water supplies were railed into the city and were being distributed from schools and portable toilets set up around the city as services were disrupted.

Rescue specialists from the US, Britain, Taiwan and Japan were en route to New Zealand, while the first of 148 search and rescue specialists from neighboring Australia, aided by sniffer dogs, were already on the streets.

US president Barack Obama expressed condolences, saying a US urban search and rescue team would be sent to New Zealand. "We stand ready to provide more assistance as needed," he said.