New Zealand falls silent for quake victims

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AFP) – Grieving New Zealanders wept and hugged Tuesday, as the nation fell silent to mark the moment last week when an earthquake tore apart Christchurch and claimed hundreds of lives.

At 12:51 pm (2351 GMT Monday), exactly a week after the 6.3-magnitude quake hit New Zealand's second largest city, silence descended across the country for two minutes and flags flew at half mast.

AFP - Grieving New Zealanders weep and hug Tuesday

In Christchurch, exhausted emergency crews from around the world briefly set aside the grim task of combing through the wreckage and bowed their heads in respect.

Prime Minister John Key, who grew up in Christchurch, led the tribute in front of a partially collapsed church, within view of the city's devastated cathedral, where up to 22 people are believed to be buried in the rubble.

At his feet feet lay a collection of stones from some of the city's worst-hit sites, crossed with ferns, New Zealand's national emblem and also a Maori symbol of hope and new life.

"It's very sad, this is an earthquake that's claimed the lives of literally hundreds of people and that's hard to put into words," Key told AFP after the two minutes' silence, which was broken only by the sound of weeping.

"This is a very dark moment for us but it's a moment that we will rebuild from," he added.

Finance Minister Bill English warned the catastrophe would hit New Zealand's struggling economy, wiping out growth in the financial year to June as Christchurch faces up to a mammoth reconstruction bill.

"June-to-June could be close to zero growth," English told public radio.

"It's a different outlook from what we expected six months ago but we'll just have to roll with the punches."

The official death toll from the disaster stands at 154 but police on Tuesday said it was likely to climb above 240, up from a previous estimate of more than 200.

"We need to start considering the figure of around 240 but (it's) not locked in stone, because we're still getting information in," district commander Dave Cliff told reporters.

Crowds gathered at countless church services around New Zealand, remembering the violent shake that brought down entire office blocks and tore up roads as it reduced much of central Christchurch to smouldering ruins.

At Wellington Cathedral in the capital, the numbers spilled over onto the building's steps, with many weeping openly.

The parliament of Australia, which rushed to aid Christchurch in the quake's aftermath, also observed the silent tribute.

Key has promised a major inquiry, saying there were legitimate questions about why office blocks tumbled to the ground in a city with supposedly "quake-proof" building standards, six months after another big tremor.

One of the collapsed buildings housed an English-language school attended mainly by Asian students, scores of whom are missing presumed dead. Key said relatives deserved an explanation about why their loved ones perished.

"Obviously the earthquake was something that's beyond our control (but) we are going to get answers for those families about what's gone wrong," he said.

The rescuers who have scoured the ruins with sniffer dogs and sensitive listening devices around the clock for seven days have admitted there is next to no hope of finding more survivors.

Christchurch is also experiencing violent aftershocks, with one measuring 4.3 hitting on Tuesday, creating treacherous conditions for the emergency crews and further jarring the stretched nerves of locals.

The shakes have opened cracks in a cliff overlooking suburban streets and threaten to cause landslips, forcing more residents to flee their homes after New Zealand's worst natural disaster in 80 years.

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