The official death toll from yesterday's earthquake in Christchurch has been revised to 38, but there are fears it could reach as high as 300.

Speaking to reporters at the Civil Defence bunker in Wellington this morning, the agency's director, John Hamilton said the number of confirmed dead in the earthquake was 32 not 65 as Prime Minister John Key said last night.

But Mr Hamilton said fatalities were only officially confirmed once bodies had been identified and their next of kin informed. He would not provide an unofficial death toll.

Mr Key this morning said the official death toll had now risen to 38.

There was still no list of the missing or numbers trapped, Mr Hamilton said.

The Press reported that a woman with a baby in her arms died instantly when she was hit by falling debris in the earthquake. It was not known how badly hurt the baby was. Newstalk ZB said another baby was killed when a television fell on him.

Mr Hamilton said eight people were rescued from the Pyne Gould building and three from the CTV building overnight. About 22 people are understood to still be trapped inside the Pyne Gould building and six in the CTV premises.

He said rescuers were focussing on 10 buildings in the city.

Police nightshift commander Superintendant Russell Gibson told Radio New Zealand there were scenes of "absolute carnage" in the centre of Christchurch.

He said bodies were "right through" the rubble but he believes more than 23 people were pulled out alive overnight.

"We've had some people that have been pulled out and they haven't had as much as a scratch on them," he said

Mr Gibson said most rescue shifts are changing over at 8am.

"People have basically worked through the night and we're bringing in new staff."

Mr Hamilton said most emergency call-outs had come from Christchurch's CBD.

Welfare centres had been busy overnight as had hospitals and medical facilities, he said. Power was still out to large areas of the city, telecommunications were patchy and many residents did not have drinking water.

Aftershocks continued to hit Christchurch overnight, the largest a 4.8 magnitude tremor 10km south-west of the city at a depth of 7km at 9.21pm.

There have been at least 11 more quakes over magnitude 4, with the latest a 4.6 magnitude earthquake 7km deep at 6am today, GNS Science says.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker told Breakfast at least six schools would be used as water distribution centres. Water tankers would be sent to them today for people to collect water from. The schools were Lyttelton, Redcliffs, South New Brighton, Shirley, Wainoni and Phillipstown. Steps were also under way to get food supplies in.

Mayor Parker urged people to stay at home, saying the city was effectively "closed" for at least the next three days.

"We don't want you out driving and looking around. As we found in September those roads are lifelines."

Mr Hamilton said Australian search and rescue teams were due in Christchurch early this morning.

Mayor Parker said specialist teams were coming from Japan and the United States and the BBC is reporting that the United Kingdom is sending a 62-strong search and rescue team with more than nine tonnes of equipment.

Search for survivors

Mayor Parker last night said 120 people were believed to have been pulled alive from the debris.

Urban search and rescue teams were last night concentrating efforts on six downtown sites where at least 100 people were trapped, the mayor said.

Dozens of buildings collapsed throughout the city, crushing cars and buses with passengers inside.

Mr Parker said the rescue teams would do everything they could for those still trapped overnight but people needed to prepare for the worst.

"There are dozens of people in peril who may not be able to be saved."

He said food and water supplies were being organised, and urged people not to flush toilets or to shower, as water reserves were low and most pumping stations had been destroyed.

Violent shaking

Unlike the city's previous big earthquake, which hit in the early morning as people slept, yesterday's magnitude-6.3 jolt struck at 12.51pm as downtown workers and shoppers enjoyed the lunch hour.

The violent shaking caused chaos on the streets as buildings crumbled.

Witnesses saw people covered in bricks on inner-city footpaths.

One backpacker was killed inside his parked van, which was struck by bricks.

Tearful survivors wandered the streets, dazed and bloodied.

Matt Shallcrass, 26, was in his car on High St and saw buildings collapse on to pavements crowded with lunchtime shoppers, burying 30 or 40 people.

"We didn't hear anything in the car. But getting out and seeing it all happen and seeing the big dust plume and hearing everyone screaming ..."

Other survivors trapped inside demolished central city structures could be heard yelling as they waited to be rescued. Some put signs up at the windows saying "HELP".

NZ's 'darkest day'

Prime Minister John Key arrived in the city to scenes of devastation.

"I don't think we can go past the fact that we may well be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day," said Mr Key.

"What was a vibrant city a few hours ago now has been brought to its knees."

Joanne Ah Kuoi had just parked her car on Barbadoes St when the earthquake struck.

"I was looking at the footpath and it looked like the road was rolling. I saw two dead bodies just lying there. The city's in turmoil."

Fires erupted in some damaged buildings, and helicopters with monsoon buckets worked in relay to extinguish the flames.

Sewage spilled on to some roads, and cars sank into broken streets.

In some places people had to wade through liquefaction - ground shaken to liquid.

Several blocks in the suburb of Bexley were flooded by the liquid earth.

All schools in the greater Christchurch area are closed.


While yesterday's earthquake was less powerful than the magnitude 7.1 disaster in September, it was only 5km underground, making it far more violent. The September quake was 33km deep.

Aftershocks continued to rock the city nearly every hour, and giant plumes of smoke and dust clouds hung in the air.

Traffic jammed as people tried to flee the city in their cars.

"When it hit we were knocked to our feet. Everything in the house fell down. Nothing was left still standing," said Jaydn Katene, 19, from Wainoni.

"It smells horrible. The roads are packed with cars. There aren't enough police or ambulances. Houses are all collapsing.

"We've had friends in town call us and say there are bodies lying around; lots of dead bodies outside shops just lying there just covered in bricks."

Hospitals around the South Island were last night clearing wards in preparation for hundreds of Christchurch patients after a state of emergency was declared.

And Auckland City Hospital cancelled all elective surgery today to be ready for an influx of southern patients.

All available police officers were called in, but scores of 111 calls went unanswered because of overloaded lines and power cuts.

There were 180 police in the city and a further 200 were on the way.

As well, 350 military personnel were in Christchurch and another 250 were to arrive soon.

The army's Burnham camp is about 30km south of Christchurch.

Three navy ships are in Lyttelton - near the epicentre of the quake - as part of the military response, and more are on the way.

An air force Boeing 757 last night left the Whenuapai base carrying 54 urban search and rescue staff and 20 St John personnel. The plane picked up a further 34 rescue workers and two sniffer dogs at Ohakea.

Police urged people to make only urgent phone calls, or to text friends and family they were worried about.

Cathedral collapse

A man who wanted to be known only as Alex was in Cathedral Square when the quake struck.

He said he was marvelling at how little damage had been done to the cathedral when the ground began to lift.

"The top of the spire leant over, then it broke in the middle and as it hit the ground, it began to disintegrate.

"There were people leaning against the police kiosk [in Cathedral Square] with blood on their faces. I think they were hit by bricks."

The Dean of Christchurch, Peter Beck, said people were in the cathedral when the quake struck.

Cathedral officials tried to get as many out as they could, but he had no idea how many people were inside. "It doesn't look good."

Emergency triage centres were set up for injured survivors at Latimer Square, Canterbury University and the Sanitarium factory in Papanui.

There were no spare ambulances in Christchurch last night, and injured people were being brought to the triage centres by 4WD or ute.

Up to 200 people are believed to have worked in the Pyne Gould Corporation building which collapsed, leaving at least one person dead and about 30 alive inside.

One worker, Kristy Clemence, clung to the roof before being rescued by a Fire Service ladder truck; another woman was carried out on a makeshift stretcher.

Todd Lynch, from Marsh Insurance, was on the fourth floor but was thrown backwards through a door on to the third floor.

"I don't really know what happened and I heard people screaming out on the second or third floor and managed to pull them out through the side ... managed to pull them through and climb out over all these chairs and glass," said Mr Lynch.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life, and I never want to again."

Last night, rescue teams were pulling the PGC building down "piece by piece", witness Michael Guerin said.

He said two large cranes were holding up the sub-structure while workers sheared off damaged parts with concrete cutters.

Every now and then, someone would be pulled from the wreckage and an ambulance would leave without lights and sirens - a sign the person had not survived.

"Everyone is very grimfaced," said Mr Guerin. "It is a sombre feeling. It's eerie, and quiet, except for the constant sound of fire alarms going off.

"There are a lot of people resigned to the fact there will be more lives lost."

Twenty-four people were trapped on the 17th floor of the Forsyth Barr building after a stairwell collapsed.

Rescuers were winched up on a platform by a crane to help those inside get though open or shattered windows.

Adam Gordon and his wife Alice were on the 12th floor of the Holiday Inn when the quake struck. Mr Gordon said his wife raced to pick up their year-old daughter Cleo and sheltered under a door frame.

The family dashed down the fire stairs to the hotel's emergency exit where Mr Gordon said he had to kick open the door to get out.

"We are so lucky to be alive," said Mr Gordon. "We just need to be in a safe place."

One building in Bealey Ave was "blown to pieces" and the Canterbury Television building collapsed like a pack of cards, said a witness.

Twenty people walked out of the Cashel St building last night, but six more were missing.

Late last night, rescuers were searching for one woman trapped in the building, who was found to be alive when she answered a mobile phone call from her husband.

Large crowds were gathering in open spaces such as Hagley Park, where a police officer said huge oak trees had been uprooted and fallen across tents.

"I'm shaken, I'm at Christ's College now and the school is a shambles - there's a lot of damage to the buildings," he said.

"All of the water pipes are burst and it looks like a tsunami coming across the park.

"It's just unbelievable - just the sheer power."

More than 500 people went to Hagley Park for refuge until the grounds were closed.

Buses were organised to take those turned away to be given food and shelter overnight at Addington Raceway or Burnside High School.

The town of Lyttelton was also badly damaged, and thousands of tonnes of rockslides from surrounding hills covered the roads.

The Lyttelton port and and the road tunnel linking the town and Christchurch were also closed.

Christchurch Airport was also closed to all but emergency flights, but was expected to open today.

Thousands of passengers around the country were stranded yesterday as all flights were delayed or cancelled at Auckland airport.

The Government held an emergency Cabinet meeting before Prime Minister John Key went to Christchurch last night.

Civil Defence Minister John Carter said offers of help had been received from the United States, Israel and Japan, which has expertise in finding people in collapsed buildings.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard last night sent a team of 40 search and rescue personnel to respond to the "major catastrophe for New Zealand".

More than 100 Singaporean army engineers are in Christchurch and on standby to help.