Residents held open-air prayers for the dead and missing yesterday on the lawns of churches cracked and shattered in New Zealand’s earthquake while teams searched for more bodies in what could become the country’s deadliest disaster.
“As our citizens make their way to church this Sunday they will be joined in prayer by millions around the world,” said Mayor Bob Parker of the devastated city of Christchurch. “For now we are truly comforted by the thoughts and prayers of so many.”
The death toll rose yesterday to 146, with officials citing “grave fears” for the more than 200 still missing and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key warning that last week’s magnitude 6.3 quake could be the country’s worst disaster, surpassing a 1931 temblor that killed 256 people.
When the quake ripped through the city last Tuesday, the city’s churches were among the hardest-hit buildings. Among them was the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, at the heart of the city, which suffered massive damage, its bell tower in ruins and 22 people potentially lying dead inside.
Still, many churches found a way to hold mass yesterday. Parishioners set up rows of chairs in the sunlight and under the shade of trees on the lawn of St Barnabas, an 86-year-old Anglican church where the quake cracked stone walls, shattered some stained glass windows and left the tower sinking. Wails of passing police cars and the roar of a military chopper overhead occasionally interrupted the sermon.
Reverend Philip Robinson later tried to rally a somber crowd.
“This is not called Christchurch for nothing,” he said, drawing smiles from a few. “We will rise again.”
After the service, people gathered by a table on the lawn to have coffee, scones and banana bread, and to comfort those still struggling. Megan Blakie, 45, stood in the crowd, eyes brimming with tears.
“I just am struggling with where’s God in all of this?” she said. “It’s not shattered my faith, but it’s hard to keep going.”
Other Christchurch residents spent their Sunday morning in more secular surroundings, such as the botanical gardens, where oak trees insulate the pathways from the noise of the city’s rescue and recovery operations.
The Robb family, brothers Neville and Graeme and their wives, Gael and Michelle, met in the gardens, as they do every Sunday, to walk their dogs.
“You feel guilty doing something so normal when there is so much suffering,” Michelle Robb said. “But the dogs need walking.”
The multinational team of more than 600 rescuers scrabbling through wrecked buildings in the central city last pulled a survivor from the ruins at mid-afternoon Wednesday, making it four days without finding anyone alive.
Rescue coordinator Jim Stuart-Black said yesterday that rescuers were “still in active rescue mode” and continued “to look in every possible place for survivors,” but that remaining survivors was increasingly unlikely.
“We are starting to move into the miracle stage of the operation,” he said.
Engineers and planners said the city’s decimated central area may be completely unusable for months to come and that a third of the buildings may need to be razed and rebuilt.
Key said the government would announce an aid package today for an estimated 50,000 people who will be out of work for months because of the closure of downtown. He also called for two minutes of silence tomorrow to remember both victims and the ordeal of the survivors.