The confirmed death toll from Tuesday's magnitude-6.3 quake centered near Christchurch, New Zealand, rose to 75, and officials said it was almost sure to climb further. Some 300 people were listed as missing.
"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," police Superintendent Russell Gibson told the Associated Press.
Prime Minister John Key said at a news conference that 75 people were confirmed to have been killed, with 55 of them identified. He declared a state of national emergency, giving the government wider powers to take control of a rescue and recovery operation that was growing by the hour.
Rescuers are concentrating on at least a dozen buildings that collapsed or were badly damaged.
Former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh and his wife Susan, were in Christchurch during the earthquake but were not injured.
"I kept thinking I was in the middle of a movie, and that I was going to wake up and realize it had all been a dream, but unfortunately sometimes these things are true," said Bayh. "You're walking along, and the ground shakes and all of a sudden a building next to you is collapsing. Nothing in life really prepares you for that.
Susan Bayh was in the center of the city shopping near Cathedral Square, while her husband was at a lunch at a university when the quake hit.
"This nice German man took me by my coat and threw me out into the street," Susan Bayh said. "What was really frightening is what was happening ... on the streets as well as inside the buildings. ... There was a lady next to me, probably maybe a yard away that had a piece of concrete the size of maybe a half of a twin size bed on her upper half and you could just see her feet."
The couple reunited hours later after Bayh estimated he'd walked 9 to 10 miles trying to reunite with his wife after learning she'd been uninjured.
"There were aftershocks every 15 to 20 minutes, and so just when you thought maybe things had calmed down another one would hit and parts of buildings would be falling off, so you never really felt quite safe," said Bayh.
Aftershocks have sent survivors scrambling for safety in Christchurch, the nation's second largest city. Amid darkness, rain and falling temperatures, rescue and recovery efforts are under way.
Olivia Carville, a reporter in Christchurch said the immediate aftermath was devastating.
"Bodies were just lying on pavements covered in towels because there were no sheets and no way to get the bodies out of the city," said Carville. "It was one of the most terrifying experiences I will ever have in my life and the city just looked like a war zone."
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.
Parker said 300 people were listed as missing but cautioned that they did not know the number trapped in collapsed buildings, according to the Associated Press. More than 400 rescue workers were joining the search, including teams from Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, the United States and Britain.