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Horror, hope for NZ quake survivors

Cheers erupted Wednesday as rescuers pulled a woman from a major building shattered in New Zealand's devastating earthquake, but elsewhere the mood was dismal.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The sister and brother sat huddled Wednesday on sodden grass, staring at the smoldering remains of an office tower that collapsed with their mother inside.

They hadn't heard from their mother since a powerful earthquake tore through one of New Zealand's largest cities a day earlier, killing at least 75 people and leaving some 300 missing in the rubble. Still, there was hope.

"My mum is superwoman, she'd do anything," Manning's 18-year-old daughter Lizzy said, tears streaming down her face.

Just then, a police officer approached and knelt before Lizzy and her 15-year-old brother Kent in the rain. "I have some horrible news..." the officer began.

The teens' faces crumpled, and their father wrapped them in an embrace as he gently broke the news that their mother, Donna Manning, was presumed dead along with everyone else trapped inside the building.

It was a dark moment that was repeated many times over Wednesday as rescuers searched for any signs of life in the twisted rubble of Christchurch, as Prime Minister John Key declared the quake a national disaster and analysts estimated its cost at up to $12 billion.

Hundreds of troops, police and emergency workers raced against time and aftershocks that threatened to collapse more buildings. They picked gingerly through the ruins, poking heat-seeking cameras into gaps between tumbles of bricks and sending sniffer dogs over concrete slabs.

Image: A rescue worker uses a thermal imaging camera to search for signs of life in the PGG building in central Christchurch
A rescue worker uses a thermal imaging camera to search for signs of life in the PGG building in central Christchurch February 23, 2011. New Zealand rescuers pulled survivors out of rubble on Wednesday 24 hours after a devastating earthquake in Christchurch as the death toll climbed to 75, with many dozens still trapped inside collapsed buildings. REUTERS/Simon Baker (NEW ZEALAND - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)Simon Baker / X00018

Teams rushed in from Australia, the United States, Britain, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, along with a military field hospital and workers to help repair power, water and phone lines that were damaged in all corners of the city of some 350,000 people.

Rescuers were moving out into Christchurch's suburbs, the New Zealand Herald reported Thursday.

The news was grim at the Canterbury Television building, a seven-story concrete-and-glass structure that housed the regional TV network where Manning had worked as a morning anchorwoman. An English language school used by young visitors from Japan and South Korea was also located there.

The heavy concrete floors lay piled atop one another Wednesday, its central stairwell tower still standing, but leaning precariously.

"We don't believe this site is now survivable," police operations commander Inspector Dave Lawry told reporters. He said rescuers were shifting to sites that were less dangerous and where there was more hope for survivors.

Canterbury TV chairman Nick Smith said 15 of his employees were still missing inside the collapsed building. Also among the missing were 10 Japanese language students from a group of at least 23 students and teachers who were believed in the building, said Teppei Asano, a Japanese official monitoring the situation.

Not far away, cheers erupted Wednesday as rescuers pulled a woman from another crumpled office tower. Ann Bodkin was reunited with her husband after a painstaking rescue from the twisted metal and concrete remains of the Pyne Gould Guinness building. Giant sunbeams burst through the city's gray, drizzly weather as she emerged.

"They got Ann out of the building, and God turned on the lights," Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said.

Police superintendent Russell Gibson said early Thursday that the last survivor rescued had been pulled out at 2 p.m. Wednesday, and no trapped quake survivors had been found since.

Gibson said the operation had become one of body recovery, but he rejected suggestions that rescuers were abandoning hope of finding more survivors.

6.3 quake rocks New Zealand city

Slideshow  66 photos

6.3 quake rocks New Zealand city

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake rocked the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch on Tuesday, collapsing buildings, cracking streets and causing multiple fatalities and serious injuries.

"Yes, we are still looking for survivors," he said on National Radio. "There are pockets within a number of these buildings and, provided people haven't been crushed, there is no reason to suggest we will not continue to get survivors out of there."

He said the search continued in the Canterbury Television building, but "the signs don't look good. There has been a fire in there ... We will continue to pull that building apart, piece by piece, until we are satisfied" there are no more survivors.

Several workers for the U.S. Antarctic Program, a collection of scientists, research and support staff who use Christchurch as a base and transfer point, remained unaccounted for, Val Carroll, communication manager told on Wednesday.

Most of those had stopped in Christchurch after the summer research season in Antarctica and were on vacation, she said. Thus, many may be out of the area and yet to contact the program. Some 90 percent of the 600 workers with the program have been found, she said.

Many sections of the city lay in ruins, and police announced a nighttime curfew in a cordoned-off area of downtown to keep people away from dangerous buildings and to prevent crime.

Six people had been arrested since the quake for burglary and theft, said police Superintendent Dave Cliff, announcing that anyone on the streets after 6:30 p.m. without a valid reason could be arrested.

One of the city's tallest buildings, the 27-floor Hotel Grand Chancellor, was showing signs of buckling and was in imminent danger of collapse, Fire Service commander Mike Hall said. Authorities emptied the building and evacuated a two-block radius.

Parker said 120 people were rescued overnight Tuesday, while more bodies were also recovered. About 300 people were still unaccounted for, but this did not mean they were all still trapped, he said.

Key, the prime minister, said early Wednesday that the death toll stood at 75 and was expected to rise. The figure had not been updated by nightfall.

The true toll in life and treasure was still unknown, but the earthquake already was shaping as one of the country's worst disasters.

JP Morgan analyst Michael Huttner conservatively estimated the insurance losses at $12 billion. That would be the most from a natural disaster since Hurricane Ike hit Texas and Louisiana in 2008, costing insurers $19 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Rescuers who rushed into buildings immediately after the quake found horrific scenes.

A construction manager described using sledgehammers and chain saws to cut into the Pyne Gould Guinness building from the roof, hacking downward through layers of sandwiched offices and finding bodies crushed and pulverized under concrete slabs.

One trapped man passed away after talking awhile with rescuers, Fred Haering said.

Another had a leg pinned under concrete, and a doctor administered medicine to deaden the pain. A firefighter asked Haering for a hacksaw. Haering handed it over and averted his eyes as the man's leg was sawed off, saving him from certain death.

"It's a necessity," Haering said Wednesday. "How are you gonna get out?"

The quake struck just before 1 p.m. local time on Tuesday, when the city was bustling with commerce and tourism. It was less powerful than a 7.1 temblor that struck before dawn on Sept. 4 that damaged buildings but killed no one. Experts said Tuesday's quake was deadlier because it was closer to the city and because more people were about.

Christchurch's airport reopened Wednesday, and military planes were brought in to fly tourists to other cities.

Officials told people to avoid showering or even flushing toilets, saying the damaged sewer system was at risk of failing. School classes in the city were suspended, and residents advised to stay home.

Christchurch's main hospital was inundated with people suffering head and chest injuries, said spokeswoman Amy Milne. But officials said the health system was coping, with some patients moved to other cities.

Tanker trucks were stationed at 14 spots throughout the city where residents could come to fill buckets and bottles, civil defense officials said, and people asked to catch and save rainwater.

Anger, griefThere was anger that the authorities had not done more after the earthquake five months ago, which caused considerable damage but no deaths.

After watching rescuers abandon the search of his school, a six-story building where dozens of Asian students had come to learn English, Indian student Jeewan was still raw with emotion.

"How was this allowed to happen?" he said. "When they inspected the building after the last earthquake, why didn't they realize?"

"It shouldn't be this way," he added, shaking his head in grief and anger.

Asian students flock to New Zealand every year to learn English because it is safe, cheap and breathtakingly beautiful.

Kento Okuda, a 19-year-old Japanese student, was one of the language students who were rescued from under the wreckage.

"I was surrounded by darkness, unable to move with my right leg caught between something," he told Japan's Asahi newspaper.

"They had to amputate my leg to rescue me but it was something I had to accept. I want everyone else to be rescued as well," he said.