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New Zealand falls silent in quake memorial as toll rises
March 1, 2011 / 5:55 AM / 7 years ago

New Zealand falls silent in quake memorial as toll rises

<p>A man carries the casket of five-month-old Baxtor Gowland, who died in last week's earthquake, during a funeral service in Christchurch, February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Simon Baker</p>

CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) - New Zealand came to a standstill on Tuesday as people marked the moment a deadly earthquake shattered the country’s second-biggest city Christchurch a week ago, and the number of confirmed dead rose by one to 155.

Muffled church bells signaled the moment -- 12.51 p.m. (6:51 p.m. ET) -- a week ago when the magnitude 6.3 quake struck, leveling buildings and sending masonry and bricks onto streets filled with lunchtime shoppers and office workers.

The scale of the disaster meant the national state of emergency declared last week has been extended for a further seven days and is likely to continue for weeks to come, Civil Defence Minister John Carter said.

In the middle of the city, which bore the brunt of the quake, politicians, local officials, rescuers and church leaders gathered around a simple memorial of several bricks taken from the worst hit buildings, covered in flowers.

“We gather to reflect on the precious gift of life,” said the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, whose landmark cathedral was badly damaged and is believed to still have up to 22 bodies inside.

Rescue workers, who have toiled day and night since the quake looking for survivors, downed tools and briefly stopped work amid the rubble of leveled buildings.

In Christchurch city near the devastated commercial center, people stood on pavements, beside stopped cars, some holding hands or arm in arm with others, some weeping.

“People just stopped. We went outside and lined the street in silence,” said waitress Danielle Gear at one of few cafes to have reopened near a row of tumbled shops in suburban Merivale.

In the capital Wellington, around 4,000 people gathered outside the parliament, where flags at half mast flapped in a cool breeze under leaden skies.

Similar somber gatherings -- large and small -- were reported around the country of 4.4 million. In Australia, which has sent more than 200 rescue workers and medical staff, the parliament also observed the silence.

No survivors have been found since last week, and police have said the final death toll will probably be around 240, making it the country’s second worst natural disaster after the 1931 Napier earthquake, which killed 256.

Late in the day emergency stabilization work was completed on the 26-storey Grand Chancellor hotel, which has been deemed as highly likely to collapse, allowing rescue workers to enter as far as the fifth floor.

<p>A rescue worker from Japan participates in observing a two minute silence at 12.51 p.m. to mark the moment a week ago when an earthquake hit the city, at Cathedral Square in Christchurch, March 1, 2011. REUTERS/Cameron Spencer/Pool</p>

Rubble in the building’s stairwell meant access was only available up to the fifth floor at this stage, with no bodies recovered.

INQUIRY INTO BUILDINGS SAFETY

Prime Minister John Key has said there will be an inquiry into how buildings in the city hit by last September’s force 7.1 quake were passed as safe for use.

“This is an event which has claimed the lives of many, many people so we need to provide some answers...both within the buildings where there’s been wide loss of life (and) the wider issues around the adequacy of the building code,” Key said.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Concern had been raised about the condition of the 25-year-old Canterbury Television Building, which housed a language school and where nearly half the confirmed dead were killed.

The building owners said they were devastated over the loss of life, and said it had been examined by structural engineers in the wake of the September quake.

“The 22 February earthquake appears to have generated unusual forces that relatively modern buildings built to recent seismic standards were not able to withstand,” a spokesman for the owners said.

The overall cost of the February 22 and the September 4 quakes combined has been put at about NZ$20 billion ($15 billion), with the second, more destructive, earthquake costing about three-quarters of the total.

Finance Minister Bill English repeated that the government can afford the reconstruction, but that it will need to readjust spending priorities, and previous plans to cut spending and debt quickly.

“We’ll have to be a bit flexible in the face of a significant unexpected event, but we don’t intend for it to throw us off track: we want to get the government’s finances into surplus as quickly as is reasonable,” he told reporters.

Shops and cafes have begun reopening in less affected areas, including the first cinema, with limited bus and post services.

Power supplies have been restored to 85 percent of the city with a 41-tonne transformer to be installed later on Tuesday to help get electricity to the worst affected areas, where 10,000 homes have been marked as uninhabitable.

About two-thirds of the city has water but large areas still need to be supplied by tankers, and people are relying on portable toilets for sanitation.

Writing by Gyles Beckford and Adrian Bathgate; Editing by Ed Davies

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