Christchurch earthquake toll at 163

Damaged buildings around AMI Stadium. Photo / Dean Purcell
Damaged buildings around AMI Stadium. Photo / Dean Purcell

Search and rescue crews found two more bodies overnight, lifting the death toll from the February 22 Christchurch earthquake to 163.

Police now expect the toll to reach 220 when all bodies have been recovered.

Superintendent Russell Gibson told Radio New Zealand that he believed the two bodies had been recovered from the Pyne Gould Corporation building, but he was not certain.

Overnight police caught 10 people drink driving, with one person hitting the CBD cordon, but there were no quake-related arrests.

Searchers are today gearing up to enter the collapsed spire of quake-ravaged Christchurch Cathedral, where up to 22 people are believed to have been killed.

The team will start clearing debris as they search for victims.

Any lingering hopes people might be found still alive beneath the rubble, following the magnitude 6.3 quake which struck the city on February 22, were dashed yesterday after Civil Defence boss John Hamilton announced the rescue operation had become a recovery operation.

Mr Hamilton said he, search and rescue experts and police and fire chiefs believed there was no chance there could be any more survivors.

Seventy people were rescued in the 25 hours after the quake struck at 12.51pm, but there have been no survivors since then.

Mr Hamilton said he made the announcement with "considerable sorrow and some personal frustration".

"We now face the reality that there is no chance that anyone could have survived this long, and efforts have to shift to the recovery of loved ones and their return to their families," he said.

Jim Stuart-Black, who is the Fire Service's head of the urban search and rescue teams, said despite the change in focus to recovery of bodies, buildings would still be treated as if there were survivors.

The teams would work carefully with heavy machinery to slowly start clearing debris from all the streets checking as they go.

They would take apart damaged buildings in a controlled and careful manner, Mr Stuart-Black said.

"We cannot ever rule out the possibility, however small, of a miracle survivor and all sites will be treated accordingly. However, we need to be realistic and we need to help families through what is now a grim reality."

Prime Minister John Key said a national memorial service will be held in Christchurch within weeks.

"All of us held on to hope there would be a miracle, but sadly today's announcement confirms that we must now confront the permanence of that loss," he said.

"As a nation, we were all aware that as the last nine days wore on the chances of those caught up in this terrible tragedy being found alive were decreasing."

Mr Key thanked all those who had taken part in the rescue operation and who would now concentrate on recovery.

"At an appropriate time in the coming weeks we will hold a national memorial service in Christchurch to honour those who have died... but today is a day when we as a nation, along with our many friends around the world, mark with a heavy heart and great sadness this moment of unbearable loss for the many families involved."

Up to 100 of the victims could be from as many as 20 countries. The collapsed Canterbury TV building contained dozens of foreign language students at the private training school King's Education.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said every assistance possible would be given to their families.

The names of two Israelis who were killed in the quake were officially released yesterday.

They were Ofer Levy, 22, and Gabi Moshe Ingel, 23.

The bodies of Mr Levy, Mr Ingel and a third Israeli citizen have been returned to Israel.

- NZPA

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