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'Pain, anger' as New Zealand quake toll climbs to 98

Hopes faded of finding more survivors Thursday in the collapsed downtown towers of New Zealand's quake-shattered Christchurch, as officials said the death toll rose to 98.
/ Source: news services

Hopes faded of finding more survivors Thursday in the collapsed downtown towers of New Zealand's quake-shattered Christchurch, as officials said the death toll rose to 98 with grave fears for many of the 226 missing.

Police said up to 120 bodies may still lie trapped in the tangled concrete and steel that was the Canterbury Television building, where dozens of students from Japan, Thailand, China and other Asian countries were believed buried when an English-language school collapsed along with other offices. Twenty-three bodies were pulled from the building Thursday.

"The longer I don't know what happened, the longer my agony becomes," said Rolando Cabunilas, 34, a steel worker from the Philippines whose wife, Ivy Jane, 33, was on her second day of class at the school when the quake struck. She hasn't been heard from since.

"I can't describe it — it's pain, anger, all emotions," he said.

Officials appealed to families of the missing to be patient, saying the agony could be worse if they rushed the identifications and came to wrong conclusions.

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.

"It's a dreadful, dreadful day, it's a hard day for the search and rescue people because everybody is full of hope we can find people in the rubble," said Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker as rescue teams failed to find any sign of life.

The official death toll from Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude temblor stood at 98, Police Superintendent Dave Cliff said. An additional 226 people were listed as missing. Prime Minister John Key said there were "grave fears" that many of them did not survive. Among the dead were two infant boys, one 9 months old, the other 5 months, Cliff said.

'It looks like a war zone'
"We are very fearful tonight that the death toll could be much greater than any of us have ever feared," Key said, adding words of concern for the dozens of "international people that are caught up in this tremendous tragedy.

"Frankly it looks like a war zone from a helicopter," he added. "It's building after building after building that's collapsed."

Rescue efforts so far had focused on the six-story Canterbury Television building and a handful of other major office complexes that crumbled downtown, but work at those sites was shifting to the recovery of bodies while the remaining rescue efforts fanned out further afield.

Image: Japanese rescue workers arrive at the rubble of CTV building in Christchurch
Japanese rescue workers arrive at the rubble of CTV building in Christchurch February 24, 2011. International rescuers intensified their search for earthquake survivors in New Zealand on Thursday, despite fading hopes of finding any more people alive and fears that a damaged 26-storey tower could collapse nearby at any time. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (NEW ZEALAND - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT POLITICS)Tim Wimborne / X90068

A newly arrived Japanese rescue team headed straight for the ruin, with around 30 of them in orange and blue overalls clambering over rubble with sniffer dogs.

No survivors have been found since Wednesday.

The damaged buildings in and around Christchurch numbered in the thousands, including many of the older structures in Lyttelton, a port town just southeast of the city and closer to the quake's epicenter. Residents there wandered through the dusty, brick and glass-covered streets, pausing to offer each other hugs and ask the ubiquitous question: "How's your house?"

"It was just horrific," 63-year-old teacher's assistant Kevin Fitzgerald said of Tuesday's quake, which sent him scurrying under a desk along with a student at a school as the building undulated menacingly.

"I thought the devil was coming up out of the earth," he said.

The popular Ground deli and cafe was in ruins, huge slabs of its walls lying on the sidewalk in a jumbled pile. Glass shopfront windows had been blown out.

Key has declared the quake a national disaster, and analysts estimate insurance losses could be as much as $12 billion.

The water system for Christchurch and surrounding areas was in disarray.

Parker said water was still out for half of the city and that it might be contaminated for the other half. All residents were urged to assume that tap water is unsafe, and to boil it before using it to drink, wash or cook because of the risk of disease.

Fourteen water tankers have been dispatched around the city for people to fill buckets or other containers, and residents were urged not to flush toilets or use showers.

Power was restored to 75 percent of the city, but it could take weeks to repair supplies to the rest, including the hardest-hit regions, said Roger Sutton, the chief executive of supplier Orion.

School classes in the city were suspended, and residents advised to stay home as rescue and recovery efforts continued.

Officials tightened control over a cordoned-off zone downtown where the damage is worst, gathering news crews at central point and putting them in buses to take them to sites of interest. Cliff said restrictions on the movement of journalists were to protect them from potential building collapses.

More than 100 aftershocks have brought down more debris. Roads have buckled and large pools of water have welled up from broken pipes and sewers.

In places, roads had collapsed into a milky, sand-colored lake beneath the surface, the result of Christchurch's sandy foundations mixing with subterranean water under the force of the quake. Officials call it "liquefaction" of the ground.

Tuesday's quake was the second major temblor to strike the city in the past five months.

It was less powerful than the 7.1 temblor that struck before dawn on Sept. 4, damaging buildings but killing no one. Experts said Tuesday's quake was deadlier because it was closer to the city and because more people were about.