New Zealand quake city prays for miracles amid rubble

CHRISTCHURCH Sun Feb 27, 2011 2:31pm EST

1 of 36. Brent Smith (2nd L) and his family watch as their earthquake damaged house is demolished in Christchurch February 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

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CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) - Grieving New Zealanders prayed in the earthquake-ravaged city of Christchurch on Sunday as rescuers pulled apart leveled buildings in their desperate search for survivors six days after the devastating tremor that killed 147 people.

Rescue teams from New Zealand and seven countries, including the United States, China, Japan, and Australia, scoured ruined buildings in the central city and suburban areas hardest hit by Tuesday's 6.3 tremor -- but found only the dead.

"They can see bodies that they are trying to get out," police shift commander Russell Gibson said.

The dead include people from 20 nations, including dozens of students from Japan, China and Taiwan who were in Christchurch, one of New Zealand's most attractive cities, to learn English in view of the country's dramatic southern Alps.

The city's mayor clung to the hope that more would be found alive, even as aftershocks brought down masonry and sent rescue teams scrambling for safety.

"I will not stop hoping that we will find people alive in the damaged structures of our city until I am told by the police and the urban search and rescue teams that no such optimism can exist any longer," Bob Parker told reporters.

SURVIVORS

No survivors have been rescued since mid-afternoon on Wednesday. The number of missing remains at more than 200, but police have said it is likely that the number includes recovered bodies that have yet to be identified.

In the central city, the painstaking search concentrated on a finance company office block, the city's landmark cathedral and a local television building, which housed an English language school.

Japanese, Chinese and English teams joined locals to pull apart the buildings, where floors pancaked on top of each other,

brick by brick.

"What we're doing is removing the debris, we're looking for voids or spaces where there may be the living," said fire rescue head Jim Stuart Black.

Rescuers crawled through large steel tubes to get into the core of the cathedral, where around 20 bodies are believed trapped.

At the historic 155-year-old stone-built Holy Trinity Anglican Church on the fringes of the devastated city center, Reverend Hugh Bowron said parishioners at the first service since the quake were still stunned.

"The church was badly damaged in the last earthquake, and won't be repairable now, so the sense of hope has taken on a much grittier edge'" Bowron told Reuters.

"But most people were delighted just to be with each other, just to know that others were still alive."

Prime Minister John Key said the national disaster insurance fund of more than NZ$6 billion was likely to be decimated by the cost of rebuilding Christchurch and will need to be replenished.

He said New Zealand Earthquake Commission (EQC) levies were likely to rise.

On Sunday, Key also launched the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, a global fundraiser for the recovery effort in the city and the Canterbury region.

Former prime minister Helen Clark, now based in New York as head of the United Nations Development Programme, said the city looked as bad as Haiti did after last year's quake that killed more than 300,000.

"This is a city where the life has been squeezed out of it," Clark said on a private visit to the city.

She said the United Nations was unlikely to help, because New Zealand would get through the disaster.

"I think in the case of New Zealand, a developed country with a very strong civil defense infrastructure, and with the support that's come in from round the world, New Zealand will cope."

As rescue teams scoured ruined buildings, efforts were being made to prop up the teetering 26-storey Hotel Grand Chancellor, which had hampered search operations because of fears it would collapse and bring down adjoining buildings.

In the devastated eastern suburbs where hundreds of homes have been marked with red tape for demolition, thousands of volunteers delivered food parcels and water, and shoveled meter high stinking and contaminated grey silt that had squirted through roads and gardens.

But there was frustration that relief and repair efforts in the city of 400,000, New Zealand's second biggest, were not happening fast enough.

Around a third of houses has no running water although 85 percent of the city now has power.

"We're just trying to look out for one another. The aftershocks are still sending us flying," said Dave Pascoe in the poorer suburb of Aranui.

(Writing by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Sugita Katyal)