AUCKLAND, New Zealand — An earthquake, rolling the ground like the sea and opening a crevice more than a mile long, virtually destroyed three towns Monday and left thousands homeless. It was New Zealand's worst temblor in 25 years.
Seismologists said the afternoon quake, which measured 6.4 on the Richter scale, was centered in the Bay of Plenty off the northeast coast, about 150 miles southeast of here.
Civil Defense authorities said an elderly man died of a heart attack, at least two people were reported missing and dozens of others were reported injured, at least five of them seriously.
A state of emergency was declared in the Bay of Plenty area, which has an estimated population of 400,000. Police said 95% of the houses in the North Island towns of Whakatane, Kawerau and Edgecumbe were uninhabitable, many of them knocked off their foundations and split in the middle.
More Aftershocks Expected
More than 100 aftershocks followed--the largest measuring 4.5, seismologists said.
Ewan Smith, head of the New Zealand Seismological Institute, said he expected aftershocks to continue in waves for several days. "I recommend people sit tight through some very unpleasant shaking," he said.
Local authorities commandeered all available helicopters to ferry supplies and help assess damage.
The town of Whakatane, which has a population of 16,000, was rocked by more than an hour of aftershocks, police said. Officials evacuated Whakatane Hospital, which was badly damaged. Hundreds of residents living below a nearby earthen dam were also evacuated after it began showing cracks, but officials later declared the structure safe.
Highways around Whakatane were reported blocked in many places. The town's main bridge dropped more than three feet and had serious cracks, police said.
Eyewitnesses said the quake rolled the ground like a sea and opened cracks in the earth, one 1.2 miles long and 3 yards deep.
The quake jolted bridges from their foundations, severed railroad lines, and uprooted telephone and electrical lines, causing massive telephone and power failures.
Factories in Edgecumbe were heavily damaged and about 60 to 80 people who lost their homes found shelter in tents.
Plastic swimming pools at many homes outside Edgecumbe were twisted out of shape when the mile-long fissure sliced through the area.
"The crack missed houses but took with it driveways, swimming pools, milking sheds, power poles and bridges," the New Zealand Press Assn. reported.
In Kawerau, population 10,000, two people suffered broken legs at the Tasman Pulp and Paper Co., New Zealand's only newsprint mill, which has about 5,000 employees.
"The place is in absolute disarray," manager Garry Mace said. "There are a bunch of towers and walls down with debris everywhere."
New Zealand television quoted civil defense officials as saying that, in addition to the two mill workers, two forestry workers were seriously hurt by falling trees and a motorist was badly injured after being trapped by a landslide.
It was the strongest quake in the area since one that measured 6.5 on July 26, 1961, according to Bruce Presgrave, a geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.