Rescuers were last night coming under fire for pulling out of attempts to get to people trapped in the CTV building.
The search was abandoned yesterday after police said they were "100 per cent sure" there were no survivors.
More than 100 people were believed to be still in the building, which housed the regional television station, a nursing school and a language school.
Last night, diggers were moving into the site in what appeared to be initial attempts to clear the rubble.
On a Facebook page for people associated with CTV, police were heavily criticised for giving up on the recovery and announcing there was no hope of finding more people alive.
Nancy Wu, whose husband Paul is among those caught in the building, said the news was devastating.
Cindy Gibb, whose husband Sam was also in the building, said: "I know the chances are really slim, but they are giving up too soon".
The search was called off after rescue operations head Inspector Dave Lawry said police were 100 per cent sure the building was unsurvivable.
"The sad fact is that we have moved the resources we have got from this site to other sites where there is higher probability of life survivability.
"At the end of the day, we have to make that choice. It's a hard choice and my heart goes out to all the families, especially those overseas people who have come to our country," Mr Lawry said.
At the site yesterday, Aaron Frazer, 33, told the Herald how he helped to try to rescue people on the night of the quake. When he arrived he was asked by officials to build a morgue.
He said they used tarpaulins and ropes and put them in between trees and vehicles in the corner of the park. There were already five bodies waiting. "It was horrific."
As soon as Mr Frazer heard there were survivors being pulled from the rubble in a different part of the site, he ran to help.
"I could see a person's hand, someone trapped in there, and it was moving," he said.
"The paramedics were working like crazy to try and stabilise that area so they could move people out of there."
He returned to the building yesterday morning thinking there might be more to do.
However, an Australian rescue team had arrived to help and he wasn't needed, but he still couldn't break himself away.
Also watching the rescue effort was Donna, wife of Tetaki Tairakena, 60, who is also missing in the rubble. She didn't want to talk - she was exhausted - but said her husband had taught at the English language school there.
Emily Cooper, news reporter for Canterbury TV, was out at Hagley Park on a job when the earthquake struck and couldn't believe it when told the building had collapsed.
She said she was in tears all day on Tuesday and was very tearful yesterday also - her 23rd birthday.
At least 15 workmates were still inside and about seven or eight were out at the time.
She had to come, she said, because she couldn't just sit at home.
Rainy Ge from China and Yuwadee Youarach from Thailand waited across the road from the rubble, their eyes red. They are both nurses who had been attending King's English School in the complex.
Their whole class of overseas students were nurses, they said.
Only they and three other students were safe - another 35 or so were missing, said Rainy.
Like other people watching, they said it was better to be at the site waiting than at home.
The young women were finding the shock hard to deal with.
They said some new Filipino nurses who had arrived only the day before the quake were now missing.
A group of 24 Japanese tourists are believed to have died in the rubble. They include 11 students from Toyama College of Foreign Languages in Toyama City.
- Additional reporting: NZPA