Christchurch earthquake - Reuters - Feb. 22, 2011
A building damaged by an earthquake is seen in Christchurch, New Zealand, February 22, 2011 Photo by Reuters
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As authorities in New Zealand continue their search and rescue efforts following the devastating earthquake that struck its second-largest city yesterday, Israeli diplomats are frantically trying to account for dozens of nationals believed to be in Christchurch.

Ofer Mizrahi, 23, of Kibbutz Magal near Hadera, has been identified as missing in the rubble.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would keep in close contact with the government of New Zealand to assist in the aftermath of an earthquake that has killed at least 75.

The earthquake hit Christchurch at 12:51 P.M. ‏(local time‏) yesterday, with more casualties expected as rescuers worked into the night to find scores of people trapped inside collapsed buildings. It was the second quake to hit the city of almost 400,000 people in five months, and New Zealand’s most deadly natural disaster in 80 years. There are an estimated 120 Israelis currently living or traveling in Christchurch, only some of whom have been successfully contacted.

Two months ago, Mizrahi and his friend Guy Yordan departed for a hiking expedition in Australia and New Zealand. Last weekend, they were joined by two other childhood friends − Michal Friedman and Liron Sadot.

The four planned to travel within New Zealand for an additional two months, during which they planned to embark on a long hike.

Friedman’s father, Yossi Friedman, said he received a phone call at 2:30 A.M. from Sadot’s sister informing them that there had been an earthquake in New Zealand. Later, Yossi Friedman received a telephone call from his daughter, who recounted the ordeal.

“She was crying hysterically and inconsolably,” her father said. “It was difficult to understand initially what had happened.”

According to Friedman, seconds before the earthquake hit the four Israelis were walking back to their car after shopping at an electrical appliance store.

Mizrahi, who was behind the wheel, began driving when the quake struck.

Moments later, a concrete beam smashed through the roof of the car and struck Mizrahi.

Sadot and Friedman, who were in the back seat of the vehicle, managed to escape. Yordan, who was in the front passenger seat, smashed through the window to extricate herself from the car. Their attempts to help Mizrahi, who remained trapped under the concrete beam, were unsuccessful.

The three survivors were evacuated to a nearby park crammed with city residents and tourists. They were not permitted to return to their car, nor were they able to leave the country after the airport was shut down.

Mizrahi is the fourth of five brothers. Smadar Katz, the secretary of the kibbutz in which he grew up, described him as a “charismatic, sociable and active member of the kibbutz.”

According to the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli consulate general in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, has traveled to Christchurch to locate Israelis caught in the quake and offer them assistance.

The consul, Teddy Poplinger, said he encountered numerous Israeli tourists.

“They are shocked by what they experienced and by what they saw,” he said. “From what I can see, they are unsure of where to go from here. Some of them have passports and we are trying to figure out ways to get them out of there. We hope to locate as many Israelis [as we can] who are devoid of means of communication and to do so as quickly as possible.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke with his New Zealand counterpart Murray McCully yesterday and expressed Israel’s condolences. Lieberman also thanked McCully for local authorities’ efficient assistance to the Israeli Embassy in Wellington in locating the Israelis caught in the vicinity of the quake.

McCully responded by expressing gratitude and saying there is still no final assessment of the number and condition of earthquake victims.

The Chabad-Lubavitch website reported that the natural disaster toppled Christchurch’s central Chabad center. Rabbi Shmuel Freedman, who moved to the New Zealand city three months ago to co-direct the Chabad headquarters there, said he and other personnel were inside the center when the earthquake hit.

“We all ran out as [the building] was falling down, but thank God everybody is okay,” he said from the city’s Latimer Square, where Jewish families had congregated to search for survivors. “We are getting everybody together now at the square to see if anybody is missing, and we are working very hard to help everybody.”