'Surreal' moment when no bodies found - USAR

One of the Christchurch Cathedral's bells outside the cathedral today. Photo / Getty Images
One of the Christchurch Cathedral's bells outside the cathedral today. Photo / Getty Images

Search teams who were bracing for grim news had a "surreal" moment when they discovered no bodies buried in the Christchurch Cathedral spire that had collapsed during last week's devastating earthquake.

As the official death toll from the 6.3 magnitude earthquake climbed by two to 165, the announcement that no bodies had been found in the cathedral buoyed spirits. Earlier reports had as many as 22 people buried under rubble in the 130 year old church.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) spokesman Paul Baxter said it was an unusual situation for the search crews clearing the building because they had been told by witnesses a "considerable amount" of people were believed to be buried in the spire.

Overnight the crews cleared that part of the building and the remains of the internal part of the cathedral and found nothing, he said.

"I spoke to the crews early this morning and it was quite a surreal feeling for them. However, they still don't feel that they've actually completed that job and they still wanted to go back and check some other parts of the building.

"I can only imagine what it was like for them to get down to the last piece of rubble where they thought people were and what they were about to uncover, so I think they've walked away probably quite astounded.

"They've recovered the church bells which is significant for the church."

Mr Baxter said he hoped by tonight the search teams would finish work at the cathedral.

A few days ago workers rescued a live pigeon from the building.

"The SPCA released it on Tuesday at the moment of silence ... in remembrance of those who died last week."

Earlier the Dean of the cathedral said he cried when he was told there were no bodies buried in the rubble of the church.

The number of people on the missing list was likely to decrease because of the incorrect victim reports, police said.

Meanwhile, police were today expected to release more names of the quake victims.

Superintendent Sam Hoyle told a media briefing a further 38 bodies had been identified and the victims' families had been told.

So far, 20 names have been released to the public.

Six recovery assistance centres opened this morning in the hardest hit areas of the city, offering a range of services and information for people who need help.

The "one stop shops" would provide face-to-face services and information from agencies like Work and Income, Housing New Zealand, Christchurch City Council, Red Cross and Salvation Army.

The cordon blocking off central Christchurch after last week's destructive earthquake will be reduced tomorrow.

Civil Defence head John Hamilton said four green zones had been established at the edge of the cordon area and two of those would be open to the public at 2pm tomorrow.

Residents and business owners would be able to access the cordons from 8am to secure their properties, he said.

- NZPA

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