6.3 Earthquake Hits New Zealand, Leaving Scores Dead

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A building in Christchurch, New Zealand, is destroyed after an earthquake struck Tuesday, February 22, 2011 (AP / NZPA, Pam Johnson)

A devastating 6.3 earthquake hit the New Zealand city of Christchurch late last night, leaving at least 65 people dead.

It’s unclear as to how extensive the fatalities are; as rescuers continue to search the rubble of collapsed buildings, the death toll is expected to rise. Among those killed were passengers in two buses crushed by falling buildings. Late in Tuesday afternoon, workers and volunteers were still scrambling to help people trapped by debris and fire.

(More on TIME.comSee pictures of the earthquake damage in Christchurch.)

The earthquake struck just before 1 p.m. local time, at a time where people were going about their daily activities.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the epicenter was located just 3 miles from the city. A 5.6 aftershock struck shortly after about 7 miles out. The Christchurch mayor has declared a state of emergency, ordering people to evacuate from the city.

(More on TIME.com: Read more about the intial reports from the disaster.)

Christchurch Cathedral, one of the city’s historical landmarks, was one of the many buildings destroyed in the quake. City councilman Barry Corbett told the Associated Press that it “was evident straight away that a lot of buildings had gone.” Home to 350,000 people, Christchurch is considered to be the gateway to New Zealand’s South Island, a popular tourist destination.

It is the second earthquake to strike Christchurch in the past five months. The last earthquake in September 2010 came in at 7.1 on the Richter scale but was not fatal. But it did rack up nearly $3 billion worth of damage. New Zealand lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, known for its volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Only about a handful do any damage each year.

(More on TIME.com: See pictures of the damage from the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake.)