No fatalities reported at epicenter

A resident walks a dog Thursday through the center of Lyttelton as she looks at the damage from Tuesday’s earthquake, near Christchurch, New Zealand.

A resident walks a dog Thursday through the center of Lyttelton as she looks at the damage from Tuesday’s earthquake, near Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by The Associated Press.

LYTTELTON, New Zealand (AP) — At the epicenter, children in the school playground screamed as the earth rattled and cracked. Elderly residents toppled to the floor in the nursing home. Cliff faces fell, spitting truck-sized boulders across lawns and through houses.

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A fuel tanker sits abandoned and blocked Wednesday by fallen rubble on a main road between Lyttelton and Christchurch, New Zealand, Wednesday.

This week’s massive earthquake flattened office towers and killed at least 113 people in nearby Christchurch. But this tiny harborside village reported no deaths despite being at ground zero.

Residents are thankful for that. But there is devastation all around them.

“I thought the devil was coming up out of the earth,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, a 63-year-old teacher’s aide who yanked a student under a desk and sheltered him as the school rocked menacingly, sending everything crashing to the floor.

“The whole building was just undulating — that noise, that NOISE!” he said Thursday, shaking his head at the memory. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to die.”’

The rumbling started at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday. When it stopped, Fitzgerald ran to join the students on the school’s playground, most of whom were sobbing hysterically. He saw a giant, mushroom-shaped cloud of dust hovering over the town. The community’s usual hum was replaced by silence, punctuated by screams, dog barks and seagull calls.

Two days later, dazed residents of the close-knit village of 3,000 wandered through dusty, brick- and glass-covered streets, pausing when they passed each other to offer hugs, shed a few tears and ask the question on everyone’s mind: “How’s your house?”

The answer was generally grim. Most homes bore at least some quake-induced scars. The popular Ground deli was in ruins, windows were blown out of shop fronts and the stone steeple on the Union Parish Church had toppled to the ground.

Though there was a report of one man crushed by a boulder, so far there are no confirmed deaths in Lyttelton. By contrast the death toll in Christchurch, just seven miles to the north, stood at more than 100 in what could end up being New Zealand’s worst natural disaster. No one has been pulled out alive since Wednesday afternoon.

Police superintendent David Cliff said on Friday morning the latest count of bodies at a special morgue set up to deal with the dead was 113. With 228 people listed as missing, the toll of fatalities was still expected to rise.

Water supplies to Lyttelton were cut, and residents gathered Thursday at a fresh water station set up near the town center, filling as many watering cans, plastic buckets and bottles as they could carry home. The pavement under their feet wobbled during relentless aftershocks, but residents said they were nothing compared with Tuesday’s nightmare.

The quake unleashed huge boulders from surrounding hills, sending them hurtling toward the village. One monstrous rock, around 16 feet wide and 10 feet tall, bounced twice as it crossed a main road, gouging deep holes in the pavement, then rocketed into the front yard of a one-story white brick home. The boulder smashed into the front door and exited out the back — taking out everything in between.

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