Hundreds of troops, police and emergency workers raced against time in Christchurch on Wednesday looking for survivors, as aftershocks threatened to collapse more buildings and the death toll from the devastating earthquake reached 75, with some 300 people missing.
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The rescue workers picked gingerly through the ruins, poking heat-seeking cameras into gaps between tumbles of bricks and sending sniffer dogs over concrete slabs.
More teams rushed in from Australia, Asia, the United States and Britain, along with a military field hospital and teams to help repair power, water and phone lines that were damaged in all corners of the city of some 350,000 people.
Some 21 Israelis believed to have been in or around Christchurch when the temblor hit had still not made contact with family on Wednesday, but Foreign Ministry officials said that this was most likely because they were hiking in the region outside the city and unable to phone home.
The number of unaccounted for had dropped from 82.
One Israeli backpacker feared dead, 23-year old Ofer Mizrahi from Kibbutz Magal, has not yet been identified. There is also immediate concern about three to five other Israelis – not travelling in the same group – who were seen in the city just before the earthquake, but who have not yet contacted relatives.
Dozens of other Israelis, the majority of them on post-army treks, are believed to be in remote parts of the Southern Island, many of them high up on rugged trails in the mountains without phone connection or access to the news, and unaware even that disaster hit the other side of the island.
Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand, Shimi Zur, joined his consul Teddy Poplinger in Christchurch to spearhead efforts to locate and assist the Israelis in the area.
Meanwhile, at the Canterbury Television building in the city, a seven-story concreteand- glass structure that housed the regional TV network and where dozens of people were believed to have been trapped, the news was grim.
The heavy concrete floors lay piled atop one another on Wednesday, the building’s 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, announcing that 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 and assumed inside the collapsed building. Ten Japanese language
students were still missing from a group of at least 23 students and
teachers who were believed in the building, said Teppei Asano, an
Japanese official monitoring the situation.
Not far away, cheers erupted 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.
Coincidentally, 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.
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 opportunistic 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
collapsing, Fire Service commander Mike Hall said. Authorities emptied
the building and evacuated a two-block radius.
Parker said 120 people were rescued overnight on 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.
Prime Minister John Key declared the quake a national disaster and
analysts estimated its cost at up to $12 billion. While the true toll in
life and treasure was still unknown, the earthquake already was shaping
as one of the country’s worst disasters.
JP Morgan analyst Michael Huttner conservatively estimated the insurance
losses at $12b. That would be the most from a natural disaster since
Hurricane Ike hit Texas and Louisiana in 2008, costing insurers $19b.,
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 severely 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 of the game,” Haering said on 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 September 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 on 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, spokeswoman Amy Milne said.
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.