NZ quake death toll at 98; up to 4 Israelis feared dead

Rescue workers search for survivors under rubble; Israeli consulate trying to find 20 Israelis who have not contacted families.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 23, 2011 09:19
3 minute read.
Debris litter central Christchurch, New Zealand.

New Zealand earthquake 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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The Foreign Ministry and Israel consul in New Zealand on Wednesday confirmed that between three and four Israelis are still missing and are feared to be dead, after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch Tuesday.

The confirmed death toll from Tuesday's magnitude-6.3 quake rose to 98, and officials said it was almost sure to climb further. Some 300 people were listed as missing.

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Cheers broke out when an emergency team pulled a woman from the twisted metal and shattered concrete of one of the worst-hit buildings in Christchurch, while police announced they had lost all hope of finding survivors in another major wreckage.

Parts of the city of 350,000 people lay in ruins, and all corners of it were suffering cuts to water supplies, power and phones.

“It is just a scene of utter devastation,” Prime Minister John Key said, after rushing to the city within hours of the quake.

“We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day,” he said. “It’s an absolute tragedy for this city, for New Zealand, for the people we care so much about, and it’s a terrifying time for the people of [the] Canterbury [region].



Quite frankly it’s hard to know what to say.”

An Israeli backpacker was reportedly killed, and two others were hurt in the quake. According to media reports, friends of the man informed his parents that he was killed when a boulder smashed into a car he was traveling in.

The Foreign Ministry did not release his name, but television reports on Tuesday night identified him as Ofer Mizrahi, 23, from Kibbutz Magal.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke by phone with his New Zealand counterpart, Murray McCully, expressing his condolences.

Lieberman thanked McCully for helping the Israeli Embassy in locating Israelis in the Christchurch area and offered to send Israeli search and rescue experts to help in finding survivors trapped beneath the rubble.

Israeli consul in New Zealand, Teddy Poplinger, on Wednesday said that it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Mizrahi is among the dead in the earthquake, reported Israel Radio.

While most Israelis in Christchurch left for Wellington and Auckland, Poplinger said that the Israeli consulate is still trying to get in contact with 20 Israelis whose families have not heard from them since the earthquake. 

Search teams assisted by floodlights and earth movers worked through dawn Wednesday, trying to dig through crumbled concrete, twisted metal and huge mounds of brick.

Among the destroyed buildings was the Chabad House, a magnet for the scores of post-army Israeli youth who go trekking in New Zealand. About 9,000 Israelis, the vast majority of them backpackers, visit the country each year.

Rabbi Shmuel Freedman, a Chabad emissary living in the city located on New Zealand’s South Island, said the Chabad House was reduced to rubble, but that everyone managed to get out.

“We all ran out as it was falling down, but thank God everybody is okay,” he was quoted as saying by Chabad.org. “We are getting everybody together now at the square to see if anybody is missing, and we are working very hard to help everybody.”

Most of New Zealand’s 7,000 Jews live on the North Island in Auckland and Wellington, which were unaffected by the earthquake.

There is a Jewish community numbering around 200 people in Christchurch.

The Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning after the earthquake, advising Israelis to refrain from going to Christchurch or its surrounding areas. It also called on Israelis in the area to leave.

By Tuesday evening, officials from the embassy in Wellington were not yet in Christchurch, whose airport was closed to all but emergency traffic, but they were en route to help the estimated 100 Israelis in the city at the time of the quake. Concerned relatives called the Foreign Ministry’s situation room throughout the day, seeking any possible information.

JPost.com staff contributed to this report.

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