Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Zealand quake death toll reaches 98

Christchurch, February 24, 2011

Hopes faded of finding more survivors Thursday in the collapsed downtown towers of New Zealand's quake-shattered Christchurch, as officials said the death toll rose to 98 with grave fears for many of the 226 missing.

Police said up to 120 bodies may still lie trapped in the tangled concrete and steel that was the Canterbury Television or CTV building, where dozens of students from Japan, Thailand, China and other Asian countries were believed buried when an English-language school collapsed along with other offices. Twenty-three bodies were pulled from the building Thursday, but not immediately identified.

"The longer I don't know what happened, the longer my agony becomes," said Rolando Cabunilas, 34, a steel worker from the Philippines whose wife, Ivy Jane, 33, was on her second day of class at the school when the quake struck. She hasn't been heard from since. "I can't describe it, it's pain, anger, all emotions," he said.

Officials appealed to families of the missing to be patient, saying the agony could be worse if they rushed the identifications and came to wrong conclusions.

The official death toll from Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude temblor stood at 98, Police Superintendent Dave Cliff said. An additional 226 people were listed as missing, and Prime Minister John Key said there were "grave fears" that many of them did not survive. Among the dead were two infant boys, one 9 months old, the other 5 months, Mr. Cliff said. He did not give details of their deaths.

"We are very fearful tonight that the death toll could be much greater than any of us have ever feared," Mr. Key said, adding words of concern for the dozens of "international people that are caught up in this tremendous tragedy."

Rescue efforts so far had focused on the CTV building and a handful of other major office complexes that crumbled downtown, but work at those sites was shifting to the recovery of bodies while the remaining rescue efforts fanned out further afield. No new survivors were found since Wednesday.

The damaged buildings in and around Christchurch numbered in the thousands, including many of the older structures in Lyttelton, a port town just southeast of the city and closer to the quake's epicenter. Residents there wandered through the dusty, brick and glass-covered streets, pausing to offer each other hugs and ask the ubiquitous question, "How's your house?"

"It was just horrific," 63-year-old teacher's assistant Kevin Fitzgerald said of Tuesday's quake, which sent him scurrying under a desk along with a student at a school as the building undulated menacingly. "I thought the devil was coming up out of the earth," he said.

The popular Ground deli and cafe was in ruins, huge slabs of its walls lying on the sidewalk in a jumbled pile. Glass shopfront windows had been blown out.

In Christchurch, hundreds of foreign specialists, from the U.S., Britain, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan,arrived to bolster local police and soldiers and allow teams to broaden their search to smaller buildings not yet checked.

"Now we've got the capability of going out and doing searches in areas where there may still be people trapped that hitherto we haven't been able to address," Civil Defense Minister John Carters said.

Teams dressed in blue coveralls and orange helmets and with sniffer dogs moved along city streets lined with one and two-storey office buildings, small stores, restaurants and cafes. The brick facades of some had fallen onto sidewalks, and car after car parked at the curb lay crushed under heavy steel awnings.

They went building to building. At times, a dog would let out a bark and rush excitedly into the rubble, the rescuers following gingerly after them. At one place, they uncovered a body pinned under a huge chunk of concrete.

Mayor Bob Parker said searchers divided downtown into a grid of 114 squares, and did preliminary checks on 60 percent of them by the end of Thursday. They marked some areas as too dangerous to enter, and others as needing more detailed checks later.

Mr. Key has declared the quake a national disaster, and analysts estimate insurance losses could be as much as $12 billion.

The water system for Christchurch and surrounding areas was in disarray.

Mr. Parker said water was still out for half of the city and that it might be contaminated for the other half. All residents were urged to assume that tap water is unsafe, and to boil it before using it to drink, wash or cook because of the risk of disease.

Fourteen water tankers have been dispatched around the city for people to fill buckets or other containers, and residents were urged not to flush toilets or use showers.

Power was restored to 75 percent of the city, but it could take weeks to repair supplies to the rest, including the hardest-hit regions, said Roger Sutton, the chief executive of supplier Orion.

School classes in the city were suspended, and residents advised to stay home as rescue and recovery efforts continued.

Officials tightened control over a cordoned-off zone downtown where the damage is worst, gathering news crews at central point and putting them in buses to take them to sites of interest. Mr. Cliff said restrictions on the movement of journalists were to protect them from potential building collapses.

Tuesday's quake was the second major temblor to strike the city in the past five months. It was less powerful than the 7.1 temblor that struck before dawn on September 4, damaging buildings but killing no one. Experts said Tuesday's quake was deadlier because it was closer to the city and because more people were about.

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