CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, Feb 27, 2011 (AFP) - Grieving New Zealanders mourned Christchurch earthquake victims Sunday as police said the disaster's final death toll was set to reach above 200.
The number of confirmed fatalities from Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude quake reached 147 late Sunday but police fear more than 50 still listed as "unaccounted for" lie dead in the rubble of New Zealand's second largest city.
|A landslide leads to the abandonment of an adobe-like, styrofoam house in Redcliffs near Christchurch on February 26, 2011. AFP|
Asked if he expected a final toll of 200, district commander Dave Cliff relied: "Yes, and probably a little higher than that ultimately."
Previously police had said that more than 200 people were missing, but clarified that that figure had included the fatalities confirmed so far.
Cliff said search and rescue teams continued the grim task of scouring the wreckage in the stricken city, where no one has been found alive since a woman was pulled from a collapsed office building on Wednesday afternoon.
Office blocks folded like packs of cards in the violent tremor, which toppled entire shop frontages, tore up roads and opened huge fissures in the ground, leaving one third of the downtown area facing demolition.
Police said they still held out hope of a miracle survival in the disaster zone but, with many ruins teetering on the brink of collapse, even the task of recovering bodies had become a frustrating and perilous exercise.
"I know that they (rescuers) can see bodies that they're trying to get out, it's tragic," police superintendent Russell Gibson told Radio New Zealand.
Many of the dead are believed to be in the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which was engulfed by flames after tumbling down in the seismic jolt.
It housed an English language school attended by scores of mainly Asian students, prompting New Zealand to assure Japan and China it would investigate why stringent building standards failed to prevent the catastrophic collapse.
"Those questions will be asked and asked vigorously, I'm sure," Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce told reporters after meeting Japan and China's ambassadors.
Students from the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea are also among those feared dead at the CTV site.
Cliff said some charred remains recovered from the building may never be identified, even with DNA technology.
"Where there is intense fire, like there was at the CTV site, it presents real difficulties... we need to brace ourselves that that possibility does exist," he said.
Around the city, which has suffered two major earthquakes in six months, shell-shocked residents gathered at services to remember the dead.
Many were held outdoors because the quake destroyed a large number of churches, including the city's landmark cathedral, where up to 22 people are believed to be entombed.
"We share a common bond this day -- there is a deep, deep sense of grief," the Dean of Christchurch, Peter Beck, told worshippers at St. Alban's Park, just north of the devastated city centre.
The Anglican archbishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, who would normally lead Sunday prayers in the cathedral, spoke of healing the quake-scarred city of 390,000.
"Don't deny your grief, don't pretend that you're not traumatised," she said.
Prime Minister John Key said the high number of foreigners killed in the quake meant Christchurch's pain was being felt around the world.
"This isn’t just New Zealand’s tragedy, the February 22 earthquake affected countless people internationally," he said, launching a a global charity drive, the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, to raise funds for victims and rebuilding.
Amid the grief, there was also anger after a spate of looting and burglaries in the disaster's wake.
Police said there were six arrests overnight and St John ambulance service reported receiving hoax calls from people claiming to be trapped in the rubble.
"The ugly side of human nature is being revealed," spokesman Nicky Green said.