New Zealand rescuers refused to give up the hunt for quake survivors Thursday even as hope faded for hundreds feared trapped two days after a disaster that has killed at least 98.
Emergency officials gave the grim news that they could find no signs of life in the wreckage of office towers, churches and homes after the 6.3-magnitude tremor laid waste to central Christchurch and some of its suburbs.
"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," Prime Minister John Key told TV3.
"That does not mean that there can't and won't be people trapped in buildings," he said. "We can't give up hope, but we also need to be realistic." Key warned the toll would rise. "The last count I had there were about 92 people in the morgue but obviously we're finding people at sites right across the city."
Police abandoned hope of finding survivors at Christchurch's landmark cathedral, which lost its spire and where up to 22 people could be buried.
Rescuers have also ruled out anyone being found alive at the collapsed CTV building, which housed a TV station and a busy language school for foreign students, and where as many as 120 people may have perished.
But police insisted hundreds of search specialists, with sniffer dogs, purpose-built cameras and listening devices, were still focused on finding survivors, some 24 hours after last finding anyone alive.
"It's possible in some cases there may be people trapped in the rubble," said police district commander Dave Cliff, who said that 226 people are missing, but that many of those could simply be out of contact.
"If people are alive and trapped we're doing everything humanly possible, with a huge range of people from right around the world, who are focused on that possibility."
Hundreds crowded Christchurch's airport, desperate for a flight out of the city of 390,000.
"It's crazy, nerve-wracking, my nerves are just... I've just been shaking all day, I haven't eaten," said Vanessa Burgess who was camped out at the terminal with her two young children.
Australian, British, American, Taiwanese and Singaporean teams are helping about 500 New Zealand rescuers comb several sites and fan out to devastated suburbs.
Up to 30 people were rescued on the first night but only a handful emerged from the wreckage on Wednesday, including one woman who spent 26 hours under her desk in the stricken Pyne Gould building.
"It's hands and knees, crawling round with a torch on your helmet," an Australian rescue worker told AFP.
"It's very dusty, you've got to be careful of a lot of sharp metal and broken glass and it's a very confined space. It takes a very special kind of person to do that."
Rescue efforts are now entering their final stage, with New Zealand's emergency chief saying most trapped people will only be able to survive for two to three days.
Police Minister Judith Collins said she had seen one corpse retrieved from the mangled Pyne Gould office building on Thursday.
"It was just a scene of utter devastation, I've never seen anything like it," Collins said of the wrecked central business district.
"If you saw it on a movie screen you would have thought somebody was just making it up, it was so bad."
The language school based in the six-storey CTV building, which was razed to the ground, said 48 students and staff were missing or unaccounted for, listing a further 42 as "status unknown".
The majority of the students were Asian, with Japan's foreign ministry saying at least 27 of its citizens who had visited the school were missing.
"This is not just New Zealand?s tragedy it is an international tragedy that is touching the lives of thousands around the world," New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.
Japanese search and rescue experts were on the scene and combing the CTV site in the shadow of the listing, 26-storey Grand Chancellor Hotel, Christchurch's tallest building, which is at risk of collapse.
Power has been restored to much of the city, but many people remain without water. Thousands, rattled by numerous minor shocks in recent months, have fled to stay with friends and relatives elsewhere.
Hundreds of homeless and destitute people are staying at one city shelter, while officials organised a food hand-out in one of the damaged suburbs.
Christchurch was hit by a major 7.0-magnitude earthquake in September, which damaged 100,000 buildings but miraculous caused no deaths. New Zealand has not suffered such a disaster since 256 people died in a 1931 quake.