International rescue teams searched through the rubble of quake-ravaged Christchurch yesterday for more than 200 people still missing, but rain and cold were dimming hopes of finding more survivors in the country’s worst natural disaster in decades.
Teams from quake-prone countries such as Japan, Taiwan and the US used sniffer dogs and microphones to scour collapsed buildings for any sign of life, after Tuesday’s magnitude 6.3 tremor struck the country’s second-biggest city.
The disaster has so far claimed 113 lives and authorities warned the death toll was set to climb.
Many of the missing were students who had come to the city, one of New Zealand’s most attractive, from Taiwan, Japan, China and India to learn English against a backdrop of the country’s dramatic southern alps.
“For those people in those far off places, your families are our families, your children are our children,” Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said in a message to their families overseas, promising searchers would not abandon hope.
Tales were emerging of daring rescues, with doctors in the depths of one collapsed building having to use a Swiss Army knife to amputate one man’s legs to free him.
“There wasn’t really any other option. Essentially the procedure was performed with a Swiss Army knife. I know that sounds terrible, but that’s all we had,” doctor Stuart Philip told the Dominion Post newspaper.
Rescuers pulled aside massive stone blocks and 13 one-tonne church bells from the toppled spire of the landmark Christchurch Cathedral in the city’s heart, where as many as 22 bodies could now be trapped in a square popular with tourists.
“We’re having to move extremely slowly, we’re working brick by brick. There are a lot of loved ones in here that we want to get out,” rescue worker Steve Culhane told reporters.
Police said 228 people were listed as missing. The list could include many people whose bodies have been found, but yet to be identified. More than 2,500 were injured in the quake and more than 160 of them seriously.
Fears that a teetering 26-storey hotel might be toppled by aftershocks eased after engineers found the building had stabilized over the past day, allowing an exclusion zone around it to be narrowed and for rescuers to enter nearby buildings.
More than half of the dead have come from the ruin of the former Canterbury Television building, which housed a popular English language school. It has become a tomb, with more than 50 bodies pulled from the rubble.
About 65 people, including many missing Japanese and Chinese students, are believed to be still inside, caught as floors pancaked down on to one another.
“We’ll keep searching until such time as we have satisfied ourselves beyond all possible doubt that there is no one left still to rescue in terms of an active find,” fire rescue chief Jim Stuart Black said.
An estimated 70 people have been rescued alive, but the last survivor was pulled out on Wednesday mid-afternoon.
Early estimates of insurance losses have ranged between US$3 billion and US$12 billion. New Zealander Prime Minister John Key said the country’s Earthquake Commission disaster fund stood at about NZ$6 billion (US$4.5 billion) before the quake, with reinsurance in place and further government backing as needed.
Further international help was arriving yesterday from Britain, China and the US, allowing fatigued New Zealand rescue crews to rest.