By Holly Quan

OAKLAND (KCBS / AP) — An Oakland environmental researcher who has studied New Zealand geology said seismic conditions in the San Francisco Bay Area are strikingly similar to the city of Christchurch, where Tuesday’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed at least 65 people and left more than a hundred missing.

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Lester McKee, who grew up in New Zealand near where the quake struck, studied geology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch prior to moving to Oakland eleven years ago.

At the univerity, McKee said he researched the exact fault line that gave way in the New Zealand quake.

McKee said the fault line there that runs under the urban center of Christchurch, a city of 350,000, is called the Alpine Fault. He noted that it is a strike-slip fault like the San Andreas, in that the plates move side by side.

“The building codes in New Zealand are very good as they are in California, but in this case it was a shallow earthquake that was centered right underneath the city,” he explained.

McKee said all of his immediate family in New Zealand was accounted for, but he was still waiting to hear from friends who live in the heart of the city.

KCBS’ Holly Quan Reports:

When he received first word of the quake from his sister, McKee said he knew it was going to be bad — even though it was slightly smaller compared to the quake they had five months ago.

Last September, Christchurch saw a 7.1 quake that was much less destructive and not deadly.

The latest one may have been deadlier because it was closer to where people live and work, centered 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the city, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Also as McKee noted, Tuesday’s quake was not as deep underground.

“The critical issue with this earthquake was that the epicenter was at shallow depth under Christchurch, so many people were within 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) of the fault rupture,” said Gary Gibson, a seismologist at Australia’s Melbourne University.

The USGS said Tuesday’s quake was an aftershock from September’s temblor. A strong aftershock in December caused further damage to buildings. The city was still rebuilding from those quakes when Tuesday’s hit.

Officials said they feared that the death toll from Tuesday’s quake could quickly rise, ranking the disaster among the island nation’s worst in 80 years.

Search teams using dogs, heavy cranes and earth movers worked frantically to find survivors amid the crumbled concrete, twisted metal and huge mounds of brick left in the quake’s wake.

“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,” Christchurch Superintendent Russell Gibson said. “We are getting texts and tapping sounds from some of these buildings and that’s where our focus is.”

“I know the figure of 65 (killed) has been mentioned (by Prime Minister John Key). It will be considerably higher than that,” he warned, without elaborating.”

“It is just a scene of utter devastation,” said Key, after rushing to the city within hours of the quake. “We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day.”

Key said New Zealand also accepted offers of specialist rescue teams from Australia, Singapore, Japan, the United States, Britain and Taiwan.

The quake toppled the spire of the city’s historic stone cathedral, flattened tall buildings and sent chunks of concrete and bricks hurtling onto cars, buses and pedestrians below.

The multistory Pyne Gould Guinness Building, housing more than 200 workers, was among those that collapsed. The quake also knocked out power and telephone lines and burst pipes, flooding the streets with water.

The quake even shook off a massive chunk of ice from the country’s biggest glacier some 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Christchurch.

Tour guides at the Tasman Glacier in the Southern Alps said the quake shook some 30 million tons of ice to off the glacier, forming icebergs in the lake. The falling ice created waves up to 11-feet (3.5-meters) high, which swept up and down the lake for 30 minutes.

Christchurch’s airport was closed for a time, and reopened for emergency flights only. Officials said domestic flights would resume on Wednesday.

Thousands of people in the city moved into temporary shelters at schools and community halls. Others, including tourists who had abandoned their hotels, huddled in hastily pitched tents and under plastic sheeting as drizzling rain fell, while the Red Cross tried to find them accommodation.

Known in New Zealand as the Garden City, Christchurch on the country’s South Island exudes the heritage of its 19th century English founders.

A shallow river, the Avon, winds through the downtown that is traversed by historic tram lines and dotted with Gothic architecture, parks and sidewalk cafes. It is a popular destination for foreign tourists and students.

New Zealand’s worst earthquake was one that struck in 1931 at Hawke’s Bay on the country’s North Island, which killed at least 256 people.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to thsi report.)


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