CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – A ‘miracle’ was required to find more survivors amid the wreckage of earthquake-hit Christchurch, Prime Minister John Key said Thursday, as the focus turned to recovering bodies.
Two days after the 6.3-magnitude quake flattened buildings in New Zealand’s second city, police said there had been no communication with people trapped inside the rubble for 24 hours, reducing the chances of finding survivors.
“We are hopeful that we might find survivors but as time passes hopes fade,” superintendent Russell Gibson told TV3.
Gibson said 50 to 100 people were believed to be missing in one of the most severely damaged buildings, the CTV site, but stressed the numbers were speculative.
Another 20 were feared missing at another site, the PGG building, he said.
With 75 confirmed dead and the toll expected to rise, Key urged people to be realistic about the prospect of finding survivors after the country’s deadliest natural disaster in 80 years.
“That does not mean that there can’t and won’t be people trapped in buildings,” said Key, who has declared a national emergency and described the disaster as possibly New Zealand’s darkest day.
“All over the world when we see disasters like this, we see miracle stories of people being pulled out, days and in some cases weeks after the event,” he told TV3.
“We can’t give up hope, but we also need to be realistic.”
Central Christchurch remained cordoned off after Tuesday’s shallow earthquake as emergency crews carefully picked through the rubble of toppled buildings for indications of survivors.
But as the text messages and tapping noises of the hours after the quake diminished, rescuers began to fear the worst and efforts turned to salvaging bodies.
Rescuers had to amputate limbs to free some survivors, but later abandoned hope for any victims in the flattened CTV building, which housed a school for foreign English-language students.
At least 24 Japanese citizens were among the missing there, including 11 students at the college along with a South Korean brother and sister in their early 20s.
Police had described the CTV building at not survivable.
“(It) had a number of overseas students in it and my heart goes out to those families that are away knowing that some of their children, family have probably been killed,” said police operations commander Dave Lawry.
“The situation is that we don’t believe this site is now survivable.”
Japanese media said a 70-strong disaster relief team had been sent to New Zealand to assist the rescue effort at the decimated building.
Christchurch’s landmark cathedral lost its spire, and dozens of aftershocks rocked the city, much of which was still without power or water.
Elsewhere rescue efforts were hampered by a two-block exclusion zone around the city’s tallest hotel, the Grand Chancellor, as the 26-storey building teetered precariously, appearing close to collapse.
A rare moment of good news was met with applause on Wednesday when a woman wrapped in blankets was dug out from the Pyne Gould Corporation building, some 24 hours after the quake.
The survivor’s sister, Sally Bodkin-Allen, said her sibling had ducked under a desk when the quake struck.
“It just seems like a miracle… it must be a very strong desk and she must have got under it very quickly,” Bodkin-Allen told Fairfax media.
For others the agonising wait for news continued.
Resident Mark Maynard kept an anxious vigil outside the Pyne Gould building for his wife, who works on the first floor and called 20 minutes before the quake to say she had forgotten her mobile phone.
“It is still no good at the moment. I am hanging around waiting, what do you do?” Maynard told Fairfax.
The clock is ticking for those still trapped, with New Zealand’s emergency management chief John Hamilton saying rescuers may have just two or three days to pull out anyone still alive.
The quake was the deadliest to hit New Zealand since 256 people died in a 1931 tremor.
Disaster modelling company AIR Worldwide said the disaster would cost the insurance industry up to NZ$11.5 billion ($8.6 billion).
Specialist teams from Australia, Britain, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States were due to join the rescue operation.
Irish authorities said one Irish citizen and one British citizen were among the dead and there were “serious concerns” about two others.
Condolence messages came from the Vatican and from exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The Pope called on the faithful to “pray for all those who lost their lives” and asked God to help rescuers.
New Zealand sits on the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, a vast zone of seismic and volcanic activity stretching from Chile on one side to Japan and Indonesia on the other.