Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some quake victims may never be identified

Search and rescue workers sift through the rubble of the CTV building in Christchurch. (Getty: Hannah Johnston)

Some quake victims may never be identified

Police in New Zealand say it is possible some of the victims of the Christchurch earthquake will never be formally identified.

The Canterbury Television (CTV) building in downtown Christchurch was engulfed in flames after collapsing in Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude quake, presenting a major challenge in identifying victims, police said.

New Zealand Police Superintendent Dave Cliff said DNA testing could put names to some of the bodies recovered from the building, which housed an English language school, but it was possible some would never be identified.

"Where there is intense fire, like there was at the CTV site, it presents real difficulties," he told reporters.

"I don't want to pre-empt what will happen, but we need to brace ourselves that that possibility does exist. We're not at that point yet, but it presents a risk."

The confirmed death toll from the quake stands at 147 with over 50 people "unaccounted for", police announced today, saying a previous figure of around 200 missing included confirmed fatalities.

A morgue has been set up at an army base near Christchurch and 166 specialists are examining the dead.

More disaster victim identification teams are flying in from Thailand and Britain, so far the names of only six victims have been released.

Superintendent Cliff says he understands that for the families, not knowing is agonising.

At the Pine Gould building, rescue workers are having to take extra care because of asbestos.

New Zealand Fire Service's Paul Baxter says it is a heavy and complex operation.

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker says he is hoping for a miracle that more would be found alive, even as aftershocks brought down masonry and sent rescue teams scrambling for safety.

"I will not stop hoping that we will find people alive in the damaged structures of our city - until I am told by the police and the urban search and rescue teams that no such optimism can exist any longer," Mr Parker told reporters.

Prime minister John Key has called for a two-minute national silence on March 1 as a sign of unity for the people of Christchurch, and to grieve for people killed in the country's worst natural disaster for 80 years.

"For now we must do all we can to show its people that all of New Zealand grieves with them," Mr Key said.

Meanwhile, Australian police officers have been patrolling the streets of Christchurch and arresting looters in the city centre.

They made eight arrests while patrolling the city overnight.

The head of the 300-strong Australian police contingent, NSW Police Superintendent Max Mitchell, says they may be needed beyond the two weeks originally anticipated and their mission may be extended.

"Look we're here initially for 14 days, that was our original deployment, there is now discussion in regards to a further deployment from Australia," he said.

- ABC/wires