Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christchurch quake toll rises to 98

Officials say emergency workers will not be giving up the search of buildings. (Reuters: Tim Wimborne)

Christchurch quake toll rises to 98

The death toll from the Christchurch earthquake has risen to 98 and there are grave fears for a further 226 still missing.

Police have begun releasing the names of victims, while prime minister John Key says there are fears the "toll could be higher than any of us could have imagined".

No-one has been rescued from the rubble since yesterday afternoon and there is no new information regarding any survivors from Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude quake.

Local and international rescue teams are working to find survivors, using cameras, sniffer dogs and acoustic equipment to detect movement or sound.

So far 164 people have been admitted to hospitals with injuries caused by falling rocks, bricks and debris.

Police district commander Dave Cliff says authorities have contacted families who have reported loved ones missing, but he warns the process of identifying and releasing bodies will take some time.

Two babies - a five-month-old and a nine-month-old - are among the dead.

"In some cases it's not possible to carry out visual identification because of the nature of what's occurred," he said.

"At this stage I can confirm 226 are reported missing and we're gravely concerned about those individuals.

"These are people reported missing by loved ones. They still haven't been reported found, so we have serious and grave concerns.

"We need to accept that number may grow because some overseas people may not have been reported to us."

He says the majority of the 98 who have been killed are expected to be included in the 226 reported missing.

Coroner Sue Johnson has asked families with loved ones missing to provide the Red Cross with any information on distinguishing features such as dental records, tattoos, clothing or jewellery to help with the identification process.

So far four bodies have been released to the families and she hopes at least two more will be returned tomorrow morning.

"Our main concern is that we get the right body back to the right family," she said.

"At the moment those bodies are in a safe place. We are looking after them and there is someone with them at all times.

"We'll be releasing bodies as we identify them, but it may take time.

Ms Johnson says rescue crews are well equipped to deal with the recovery and identification process despite scale of the devastation.

"We've dealt with situations the scale of this disaster before, for example the Victorian bushfires and the tsunami," she said.

Mr Key has called the potential death toll "unbelievable".

"Words can't do justice to such an enormous loss of life," he said.

"We're sickened to the pits of our stomachs when we hear that sort of information.

"This is a very, very tragic situation."

'No chance'

Mr Cliff says there is "no chance" of anyone being found alive in the rubble of the Canterbury TV (CTV) building and said as many as 120 bodies could be buried in the rubble there.

English language school Kings Education, which was based in the CTV building, said 48 students and staff, including at least 10 Japanese, were missing after the disaster.

Twenty-three bodies were pulled out of the building today, taking the tally there to 47.

Teremoana Wilson says her mother is missing in the CTV building. She says she hopes her mother is still alive, but is preparing for the worst.

"The main problem is actually verifying whether she was at work in the building at the time or perhaps if she was on lunch break, but obviously having not heard from her leads us to believe otherwise," she said.

The damaged Grand Chancellor Hotel, which had an exclusion zone formed around it yesterday, has been likened to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, meanwhile up to 22 bodies are believed to be trapped inside the city's cathedral.

Earlier, a voice was reportedly heard from inside the destroyed Holy Cross Chapel off Cathedral Square, but Mr Cliff said he had no firm reports of any survivors being located.

Mayor Bob Parker said emergency workers would not be giving up the search of buildings in the CBD and suburbs despite the danger still posed by collapsed buildings.

"We're not giving up. We're putting more people in," Mr Parker said.

Around a quarter of the city is still without power and 80 per cent of people do not have water.

Overseas help

Yesterday, 300 Australian police were sent to Christchurch as well as a 75-bed field hospital with six surgical, medical and support staff.

A 25-strong specialist medical team was also sent to the stricken city.

Head of New South Wales Fire and Rescue Greg Mullins says the city has been split into grids to coordinate the rescue efforts.

He says the Australian teams are made up of doctors, structural engineers, paramedics and earthquake rescue specialists.

"It's a multi-agency team; they include some hazardous materials specialists who are checking the atmosphere in confined spaces," he said.

"But most of them are rescue specialists, many of whom were involved in the Thredbo landslide, Taiwan, Turkey, Indonesia and other earthquakes around the world."

Specialists from Japan and the United States have also joined the local rescue effort.

The Department of Foreign Affairs says it does not hold concerns for the safety of any Australian in Christchurch.

DFAT confirmed that almost 2,000 Australians are safe, but it is yet to determine the location of more than 1,300 Australians.

One long-term Australian resident who was a New Zealand citizen was killed in the quake.

Australian officials in Christchurch say all Australians wishing to leave the city will be flown back either today or tomorrow.