Searchers declared on Saturday that no one had died in the rubble of Christchurch's iconic cathedral. It was a rare piece of good news in the final days of a grim recovery operation following last week's earthquake that devastated New Zealand's second-largest city and killed at least 165.
Authorities had feared as many as 22 people had been inside the Christchurch Cathedral's stone bell tower when it was toppled by a magnitude 6.3 quake on Feb. 22.
Police Supt. Sandra Manderson said urban search and rescue teams had completed their excavation of the area and had confirmed that no one had been trapped inside what had been a popular tourist attraction.
"Urban search and rescue (teams) have cleared the whole area ... and they've found no bodies," she told National Radio.
The Dean of Christchurch Rev. Peter Beck has been advised and was "absolutely elated," she said.
Manderson said she hoped that the surprise good news would bring down the estimated death toll of the disaster from as high as 240 to around 220. She said she was investigating what the estimate of 22 people in the tower had been based on.
She also announced that the confirmed death toll had risen to 165 after two bodies were recovered Friday from one of the worst-hit structures, the Canterbury Television building.
Beck said that from the time that the earthquake devastated Christchurch's city center at lunch time on a busy week day, he suspected that there would be multiple casualties under the ruins of the 130-year-old Anglican tower.
"Straight after the quake, a young woman was in tears and I gave her a big hug. She was telling me that she had just rushed out of the tower just before the quake and there were people behind her," Beck said Saturday.
"Then you get other anecdotal stories from people saying they saw people in the viewing platform (of the tower), so that is the kind of stuff that was going around," he said.
"This is good news in a sense that there are no bodies there, but at the same time we are very, very conscious of those who are mourning their loved ones and our hearts and prayers are with them," he added.
Authorities officially ended the search and rescue phase of the recovery operation in Christchurch on Thursday, saying there was no chance that anyone else would be pulled alive from the debris of the quake that demolished or irreparably damaged one third of the buildings in the city center. Police say that the search for bodies will not continue much longer, with some victims expected to be pulverized beyond recovery.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said Friday an estimated 70,000 Christchurch residents — one-fifth of the 350,000 population — had left the city since the quake, which cut power, water and sewage systems for large parts of the city. Most were expected to return as the city recovers.
Just 20 of the 165 bodies have been publicly identified. Authorities say the identification process is slow and painstaking because of the extreme nature of the injuries caused to some of those caught in collapsing buildings.