New Zealand rescuers said on Thursday they held grave fears for more than 200 people still missing as the death toll from an earthquake reached 98 after searchers pulled dozens of bodies from a Christchurch television building now turned into a tomb.
Teams from quake-prone countries such as Japan and the United States sent in sniffer dogs and lowered microphones into piles of rubble to probe for signs of life, two days after a 6.3 magnitude quake struck the country’s second-biggest city.
“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 city Mayor Bob Parker as rescue teams failed to find any sign of life.
Instead, the smoldering ruin of the former Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which was also home to an English school for foreign students, appeared to have become a charnel house, with 47 bodies pulled from the rubble and many more thought still to be inside.
“Every few hours we stop and do a technical search just in case, but being realistic, based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re not going to be seeing anyone alive coming out of that space,” said fire rescue chief Jim Stuart Black.
The efforts of rescuers were hindered by the prospect of new collapses of damaged buildings, with most fears focused on a teetering 26-storey hotel tower.
Local police commander Dave Cliff said the death toll stood at 98 and expressed grave concern for 226 known still to be missing. Two infants of five and nine months were among the dead.
Teams rushed to a small church after it was believed that a woman’s voice had been heard — apparently the first sign in more than 15 hours that people might still be alive. It turned out to be another false hope.
Prime Minister John Key said the death toll was certain to rise, possibly dramatically.
“We are very concerned that the death toll may rise much more rapidly than any of us had ever feared,” he said. “Frankly it looks like a war zone from a helicopter. It’s building after building after building that’s collapsed.”
The worst fears centered on the six-story television building, which was thought to be the deadliest single collapse with up to 120 people inside, including many missing Japanese students, caught as levels pancaked on to one another.
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.
HOTEL AT RISK
“We have a big team and we are determined to help,” Kai Jinnai told Reuters. “While we are here we are going to do our very best.”
In Japan, chief cabinet spokesman Yukio Edano said 27 Japanese were still missing in the South Island city, with many of those from the building’s King’s Education school.