NZ promises Japan, China probe into school tragedy
Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) Feb 27, 2011
New Zealand Sunday assured Japan and China it would "vigorously" probe the collapse in last week's quake of a building in which dozens of foreign students are thought to have died.
Tuesday's 6.3-earthquake felled the Canterbury Television (CTV) office block, leaving more than 60 students and staff from the English language school it housed unaccounted for, Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce said.
Most of the students caught inside the King's Education school when the six-storey tower collapsed and then caught fire were from China and Japan, with others believed to come from Thailand and the Philippines.
Joyce said he had met with China and Japan's ambassadors to New Zealand, along with King's Education officials, to assure them that "we were doing everything we possibly could".
"We're doing our absolute best to provide certainty as to what's happened," he told reporters, adding that he expected an inquiry to be held into the disaster.
Asked about the safety of the building, he said efforts were currently focused on the rescue and recovery phase.
"But at the appropriate point in time those questions will be asked and asked vigorously I'm sure," Joyce said.
Officials last week ruled out finding anyone alive in the smouldering remains of the CTV building and Joyce said it now seemed unlikely that anyone could have survived inside.
"And yet we all do pray for a miracle," he told reporters.
Joyce said the Chinese and Japanese envoys had spoken "very warmly of the relationship with New Zealand", and no questions of liability had been raised with him during their talks.
But he said it may take a long time to identify the dead and missing as the student database had been lost in the building collapse and a back-up had only just been found, meaning numbers and nationalities were as yet unclear.
"We are going to need their patience, I think they understand that, and they'll just want to be sure that we're working as efficiently and effectively as we can," he said.
Japanese rescue workers have sifted through the debris of the CTV building using cameras and sniffer dogs since last week and dozens of bodies have been recovered from the wreckage.
Japan's foreign ministry said last week at least 26 citizens who had, or probably had, attended the school were missing while China state television has said that 20 Chinese students who attended the school were missing.
Joyce acknowledged the "international tragedy" would hit New Zealand's tertiary education sector -- a major part of its economy drawing nearly 100,000 foreign students annually.
He urged foreign students not to be put off by the disaster.
"I certainly would understand their fear of course, it's a fear that probably everyone in Christchurch feels currently, but we're going to do our absolute best to make them continue to feel welcome and safe in this country," he said.
He told the local and foreign media that New Zealand had always sought to be welcoming, encouraging and to "treat your young people as our own".
"We are very very saddened and disappointed that we have been unable to do this on this occasion."
earlier related report
The number of confirmed fatalities from Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude quake reached 147 late Sunday but police fear more than 50 still listed as "unaccounted for" lie dead in the rubble of New Zealand's second largest city.
Asked if he expected a final toll of 200, district commander Dave Cliff relied: "Yes, and probably a little higher than that ultimately."
Previously police had said that more than 200 people were missing, but clarified that that figure had included the fatalities confirmed so far.
Cliff said search and rescue teams continued the grim task of scouring the wreckage in the stricken city, where no one has been found alive since a woman was pulled from a collapsed office building on Wednesday afternoon.
Office blocks folded like packs of cards in the violent tremor, which toppled entire shop frontages, tore up roads and opened huge fissures in the ground, leaving one third of the downtown area facing demolition.
Police said they still held out hope of a miracle survival in the disaster zone but, with many ruins teetering on the brink of collapse, even the task of recovering bodies had become a frustrating and perilous exercise.
"I know that they (rescuers) can see bodies that they're trying to get out, it's tragic," police superintendent Russell Gibson told Radio New Zealand.
Many of the dead are believed to be in the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which was engulfed by flames after tumbling down in the seismic jolt.
It housed an English language school attended by scores of mainly Asian students, prompting New Zealand to assure Japan and China it would investigate why stringent building standards failed to prevent the catastrophic collapse.
"Those questions will be asked and asked vigorously, I'm sure," Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce told reporters after meeting Japan and China's ambassadors.
Students from the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea are also among those feared dead at the CTV site.
Cliff said some charred remains recovered from the building may never be identified, even with DNA technology.
"Where there is intense fire, like there was at the CTV site, it presents real difficulties... we need to brace ourselves that that possibility does exist," he said.
Around the city, which has suffered two major earthquakes in six months, shell-shocked residents gathered at services to remember the dead.
Many were held outdoors because the quake destroyed a large number of churches, including the city's landmark cathedral, where up to 22 people are believed to be entombed.
"We share a common bond this day -- there is a deep, deep sense of grief," the Dean of Christchurch, Peter Beck, told worshippers at St. Alban's Park, just north of the devastated city centre.
The Anglican archbishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, who would normally lead Sunday prayers in the cathedral, spoke of healing the quake-scarred city of 390,000.
"Don't deny your grief, don't pretend that you're not traumatised," she said.
Prime Minister John Key said the high number of foreigners killed in the quake meant Christchurch's pain was being felt around the world.
"This isn't just New Zealand's tragedy, the February 22 earthquake affected countless people internationally," he said, launching a a global charity drive, the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, to raise funds for victims and rebuilding.
Amid the grief, there was also anger after a spate of looting and burglaries in the disaster's wake.
Police said there were six arrests overnight and St John ambulance service reported receiving hoax calls from people claiming to be trapped in the rubble.
"The ugly side of human nature is being revealed," spokesman Nicky Green said.
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Christchurch, New Zealand (AFP) Feb 26, 2011
Grieving New Zealanders held church services for victims of the deadly Christchurch earthquake Sunday as the danger of falling debris frustrated efforts to recover bodies. Only one body was pulled from the rubble overnight, bringing the death toll to 146, but police warned "we continue to believe that there are more than 200 people missing in the worst damaged parts of the city". With t ... read more
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