by Marty Melville
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AFP) – Prince William expressed his shock at the devastation in earthquake-hit Christchurch Thursday after traipsing in the rubble to inspect the stricken New Zealand city first-hand.
"It's just so sad," the Prince said as he surveyed teetering buildings in the city centre, which was razed in last month's 6.3-magnitude tremor.
"The scale of it is unbelievable. It's really brought it home for me."
Travelling without his bride-to-be Kate Middleton, the Prince was confronted with the sight of office blocks and shops that collapsed when the February 22 quake killed about 180 people and flattened much of the city.
The trip to Christchurch, which has been rocked by constant aftershocks, was the first stop on a five-day tour of disaster-hit areas of New Zealand and Australia.
The 28-year-old displayed none of the reserve normally associated with royals, acknowledging the emotional impact the city's plight had on him and offering heartfelt thanks to rescue workers and words of comfort to locals.
Christchurch resident James Sykes said people appreciated his presence on a trip St James's Palace has described as a way for the royals to show support to Australians and New Zealanders following a string of recent disasters.
"I'm not what you would call a royalist but I'm just glad that someone in his shoes decided to come down here," Sykes said. "It shows solidarity with the people."
Appearing relaxed and in good spirits after touching down at Christchurch airport, the Prince paused to hold an onlooker's baby and smiled as one woman yelled out: "Thank you so much for coming to Christchurch!"
But the mood became sombre when he arrived in the city centre, the area worst hit in the disaster.
He was guided into Christchurch's "red zone", which is still closed to the public a month on because of the danger from damaged buildings, including the city's landmark cathedral, which was reduced to a rubble-strewn shell.
It was a stark contrast to the Prince's last visit to Christchurch, in 2005, during a rugby union tour by the British and Irish Lions.
In a cruel twist of fate, Christchurch residents learned only a day before Prince William's arrival that the city had been stripped of its matches for this year's Rugby World Cup because the quake's destruction was so extensive.
The Prince toured civil defence headquarters, where emergency crews have been working around the clock to help Christchurch recover since the disaster.
Dressed in a black jacket, open-necked blue shirt and tan trousers, he mingled with emergency workers, thanking them for the "wonderful work you are all doing".
"Have you been picking people out of the rubble?" he asked one exhausted crew member.
There was a lighter moment, however, when he met the women responsible for distributing portable toilets around the city, where the sewage system remains crippled, forcing the local council to pump raw effluent into the sea.
"Someone's got to do it," he joked, posing for a photograph with the group.
Prince William then flew to Greymouth, on the South Island's rugged West Coast, where 29 miners died late last year when a gas explosion tore through the Pike River colliery.
In a visit described by local mayor Tony Kokshoorn as low-key but greatly appreciated, the Prince met privately with the grieving families of the miners, whose remains are still entombed in the pit, which is too dangerous to enter.
He will also represent Queen Elizabeth II at a national memorial for earthquake victims in Christchurch on Friday before departing for Australia on Saturday morning, where he will visit flood and cyclone ravaged Queensland and Victoria.
He is travelling without Middleton, whom he will marry on April 29, because his visit is classed as an official royal tour.
Queen Elizabeth II is the official head of state of New Zealand and Australia, which are both former British colonies and members of the Commonwealth.