WASHINGTON -- Just two hours before a deadly earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo and seven other congressmen left the city, where he was leading a trade mission.
The trade delegation's hotel was located about 200 yards away from the Christchurch Cathedral, whose tower toppled to the ground with victims reportedly inside. The 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday, New Zealand time, killing at least 75 people.
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"We obviously were shocked," Manzullo said of hearing the news, in a report on WBBM 780 radio.
Manzullo, a 16th District Republican from Egan, and the seven other congressmen left Christchurch for Wellington, New Zealand's capital, just two hours before the earthquake hit. (New Zealand is 18 hours ahead of Chicago time.)
"He said it is absolutely devastating what is happening there," said Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter. "He said it is kind of like their 9/11, their tragedy."
Two buses in Christchurch were reported being crushed by falling buildings. Other reports include multiple building collapses, building fires and people trapped inside buildings and rubble, Christchurch police say. Police from across the country are coming to the city's aid in rescue and relief efforts.
"The thoughts and prayers of our delegation, and the American people we represent, are with the people of Christchurch, the Canterbury region and all of New Zealand on the occasion of this devastating tragedy," Manzullo said in a statement. "Having received the warm reception of the people of Christchurch ... only hours before the earthquake struck makes this disaster all the more personal and poignant."
The congressman's staff has been in touch with him by e-mail. They say they weren't worried since they knew he had vacated Christchurch before the earthquake struck.
Manzullo and the rest of his team have spent the day meeting with New Zealand officials. They planned to meet with Prime Minister John Key, but were unable as the nation dealt with the disaster.
The delegation was scheduled to leave New Zealand for Australia to continue talks on trade with Pacific nations. They are proposing that the U.S. join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral agreement between New Zealand, Australia and six others whose goal is to eliminate all tariffs among member nations by 2015.
Also traveling with Manzullo are Republican Reps. Dan Lundgren of California and Kevin Brady of Texas, and Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen of Washington, Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa, Joe Crowley of New York, Gregory Meeks of New York, and Gregorio Sablan of Northern Mariana Islands.