Mon, Feb 28, 2011 - Page 5 News List

New Zealand promises probe into school tragedy

AFP, CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand yesterday assured Japan and China it would “vigorously” probe the collapse in last week’s quake of a building in which dozens of foreign students are thought to have died.

Tuesday’s earthquake felled the Canterbury Television (CTV) office block, leaving more than 60 students and staff from the English language school it housed unaccounted for, New Zealand Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce said.

Most of the students caught inside the King’s Education school when the six-story tower collapsed and then caught fire were from China and Japan, with others believed to come from Thailand and the Philippines.

Joyce said he had met with China and Japan’s ambassadors to New Zealand, along with King’s Education officials, to assure them that “we were doing everything we possibly could.”

“We’re doing our absolute best to provide certainty as to what’s happened,” he told reporters, adding that he expected an inquiry to be held into the disaster.

Asked about the safety of the building, he said efforts were currently focused on the rescue and recovery phase.

“But at the appropriate point in time those questions will be asked and asked vigorously I’m sure,” Joyce said.

Officials last week ruled out finding anyone alive in the smouldering remains of the CTV building and Joyce said it now seemed unlikely that anyone could have survived inside.

“And yet we all do pray for a miracle,” he told reporters.

Joyce said the Chinese and Japanese envoys had spoken “very warmly of the relationship with New Zealand,” and no questions of liability had been raised with him during their talks.

However, he said it may take a long time to identify the dead and missing as the student database had been lost in the building collapse and a back-up had only just been found, meaning numbers and nationalities were as yet unclear.

“We are going to need their patience, I think they understand that, and they’ll just want to be sure that we’re working as efficiently and effectively as we can,” he said.

Japanese rescue workers have sifted through the debris of the CTV building using cameras and sniffer dogs since last week and dozens of bodies have been recovered from the wreckage.

Japan’s foreign ministry said last week at least 26 citizens who had, or probably had, attended the school were missing while China state television has said that 20 Chinese students who attended the school were missing.

Joyce acknowledged the “international tragedy” would hit New Zealand’s tertiary education sector — a major part of its economy drawing nearly 100,000 foreign students annually.

He urged foreign students not to be put off by the disaster.

“I certainly would understand their fear of course, it’s a fear that probably everyone in Christchurch feels currently, but we’re going to do our absolute best to make them continue to feel welcome and safe in this country,” he said.

He told the local and foreign media that New Zealand had always sought to be welcoming, encouraging and to “treat your young people as our own.”

“We are very, very saddened and disappointed that we have been unable to do this on this occasion,” Joyce said.

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