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400 dead, missing in New Zealand quake, frantic search for survivors on

New Zealand rescuers worked frantically through the night to reach trapped survivors after a catastrophic earthquake left nearly 400 people dead or missing in Christchurch. See pics

world Updated: Feb 23, 2011 10:52 IST

New Zealand rescuers worked frantically through the night to reach trapped survivors after a catastrophic earthquake left nearly 400 people dead or missing in Christchurch.

Prime Minister John Key, declaring a national emergency after New Zealand's worst natural disaster in 80 years, said the region around the country's second largest city had suffered "death and destruction on a dreadful scale".

Rescuers had to amputate limbs from survivors to free them from smouldering ruins of buildings reduced to debris in minutes, while dazed survivors were plucked from the rubble in a desperate overnight rescue mission.

Christchurch resident Tom Brittenden said he saw a woman die with her baby in her arms when she was hit by falling debris in the city's Cashel St Mall. Her baby survived but she was killed instantly. "We tried to pull these big bricks off (her)... she was gone," he told the Christchurch Press.

Rescuers have recovered 75 bodies since the 6.3 magnitude quake struck at lunchtime on Tuesday, and about 300 people are still missing, officials said.

The quake was the deadliest to hit New Zealand since 256 people died in a 1931 tremor, and it came six months after a 7.0 magnitude quake weakened buildings in Christchurch, but miraculously resulted in no deaths. The latest tremor toppled many buildings and left central Christchurch strewn with debris. The city's landmark cathedral lost its spire.

Dozens of aftershocks rocked the city on Tuesday and overnight, hampering rescue efforts.

Police Superintendent Russell Gibson warned that the toll was certain to rise as more than 500 emergency workers combed through shattered buildings, listening out for any signs of life. "There is incredible carnage right throughout the city," he told Radio New Zealand. "There are bodies littering the streets, they are trapped in cars and crushed under rubble."

Most of the city remained without power and Gibson said rescue crews working through the night had freed 20 to 30 people, some at desperate cost.