Search and rescue teams sifting through the rubble in quake-stricken Christchurch entered a have second day of toil, as the disaster’s death toll rose to 75.
Some 300 people are still missing, although it is not know how many lay trapped under the collapsed buildings and debris that showered the city when the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck.
A British aid team was due to leave Gatwick to fly to New Zealand’s South Island this morning and join the rescue mission, which has been put at risk by a series of smaller aftershocks.
The British Foreign Office is “urgently” seeking information about any UK casualties, but it is not yet known if any Britons are among the dead.
“We are in close touch with the local authorities and are urgently seeking information,” said a Foreign Office spokesman.
“The High Commission in Wellington have mobilised a consular response and stand ready to provide any consular assistance that is required.”
Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday telephoned his New Zealand counterpart John Key to pledge his support, after a national state of emergency was declared.
“They discussed the latest situation on the ground, and the Prime Minister reiterated Britain’s sympathies and condolences at this difficult time,” said a Downing Street spokesman.
Rescuers are concentrating their efforts on the ruins of around dozen buildings that collapsed or were badly damaged in the town centre, amid fears that more than 100 could still be buried.
“There are bodies littering the streets, they are trapped in cars, crushed under rubble and where they are clearly deceased our focus … has turned to the living,” said Christchurch police superintendent Russell Gibson.
Eyewitnesses said the five km deep tremor, believed to be an aftershock from a 7.1-magnitude earthquake which struck last September, levelled high-rise buildings, tore up pavements and sprayed rubble onto the streets below. It also toppled the spire of the city’s historic stone cathedral.
Thousands of people have been transferred to temporary shelters in schools and community centres, while scores have fled New Zealand’s second largest city.