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Originally published February 22, 2011 at 8:30 PM | Page modified February 23, 2011 at 10:14 AM

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Why weaker quake did more damage than September's

Tuesday's earthquake in New Zealand, which killed at least 75 people, although weaker than the one that rocked the area last September...

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Tuesday's earthquake in New Zealand, which killed at least 75 people, although weaker than the one that rocked the area last September, did more damage and cost lives primarily because of a deadly combination of distance, depth and timing.

Search teams in Christchurch, the country's second-largest city, used their bare hands, dogs, heavy cranes and earth movers Wednesday to pull 120 survivors from the rubble, while 300 people are listed as missing.

As rescuers dug through the crumbled concrete, twisted metal and huge mounds of brick across Christchurch, officials feared that the death toll could rise further, ranking the 6.3-magnitude earthquake among the nation's worst in 80 years.

The quake was centered about three miles from Christchurch. It was only about three miles deep and occurred in the middle of a workday.

The jolt "is squarely beneath the city itself," said seismologist Egill Hauksson of the California Institute of Technology. "All the old historic buildings are being shaken more violently than they were built to withstand."

Scientists classified it as an aftershock of the magnitude-7 that struck on Sept. 4.

No one died in that early-morning quake — 11 times stronger — mainly because it was centered farther away, about 30 miles west of the city. It also was twice as deep as Tuesday's aftershock. Shallower quakes tend to be more damaging.

While New Zealand has strict building codes, Christchurch has a number of pre-World War II buildings that were badly damaged by the September quake.

Another reason the latest quake was more deadly is that buildings previously weakened were more likely to sustain damage this time, said Tom Jordan, who heads the Southern California Earthquake Center.

Many cities on the U.S. West Coast face similar seismic risks, experts say. The West Coast soil is similar to New Zealand's, which can turn to mush during an earthquake and worsen damage, said Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University.

"New Zealand has some of the most progressive building codes in the world. They are better prepared for an earthquake like this than many U.S. cities would be," Yeats said in a statement.

Prime Minister John Key said 75 people's deaths were confirmed, with 55 of them identified. Rescuers are concentrating on at least a dozen buildings that collapsed or were badly damaged.

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In one of the worst, a camera inserted into the rubble showed people still alive, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said. Some survivors emerged without a scratch; others could not be freed without amputation of limbs.

Mall worker Tom Brittenden told of helping to pull victims from the rubble in the immediate aftermath.

"There was a lady outside we tried to free with a child," Brittenden told National Radio. "A big bit of concrete or brick had fallen on her and she was holding her child. She was gone. The baby was taken away."

The quake even shook off a massive chunk of ice from the country's biggest glacier some 120 miles east of Christchurch.

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

An Air Force squadron from Joint Base Lewis-McChord stationed in Christchurch survived the quake without injury and helped reopen the international airport.

Active-duty and reserve aircrews from Joint Base Lewis-McChord journey south to New Zealand each year to fly missions with C-17 transport aircraft in support of Antarctica's McMurdo Station. That station is the hub of research efforts conducted through the National Science Foundation.

Adamaire Lewis, spokeswoman for the 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said members of the 304th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron will work with the U.S. Embassy and the Royal New Zealand Air Force to assist in the Christchurch area.

Administration officials confirmed that Americans participating in two high-level delegations to the country were unharmed.

Seattle Times staff writer Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

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