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New Zealand inquest told of quake victims' last moments

by Staff Writers
Wellington (AFP) May 16, 2011
A New Zealand inquiry into the deaths of nine Christchurch earthquake victims who remain formally unidentified heard evidence Monday of their last communications with loved ones.

A total of 181 people died in the 6.3-magnitude quake that rocked New Zealand's second city on February 22 but the remains of nine, including four Chinese and a Filipina, were too incomplete to allow formal identification.

At an inquest into the deaths, police presented circumstantial evidence to Chief Coroner Neil MacLean that all the unidentified victims perished in the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which collapsed then burst into flames.

Detective inspector Paul Kench said witness statements placed the victims in the office block at the time of the quake and examination of mobile phone, bank and passport records had shown no activity since the disaster.

He detailed text messages sent to the victims from friends and relatives desperate to hear from missing loved ones.

One message sent to CTV employee Shawn Lucas read: "Shawn are you OK? Did you get out? Let me know ASAP where you are. We are so worried about you."

Another to Peruvian national Elsa Torres De Frood said: "Please tell me you are OK. Thanks". Kench said only De Frood's wedding ring and keys were found in the charred wreckage of the building.

He said a friend of Rhea Mae Sumalpong from the Philippines, who was studying at an English-language school in the building, reported receiving a call after the quake from someone who was trapped with the trained nurse.

The person said Sumalpong could not make the call herself because her hands were pinned down in the rubble.

MacLean said the 25-year-old's case was particularly tragic as it was apparent that Sumalpong "unfortunately lingered on alive and trapped as fire swept through the building".

Chinese consular officials attended the inquest in Christchurch to hear evidence about the deaths of four Chinese nationals -- Zhou Xiaoli, 26, Leng Jinyan, 30, Xu Xiujuan, 47 and Zhang Didi, 23.

The inquest, scheduled to continue until Wednesday, will allow the coroner to formally declare the unidentified victims are dead, a step MacLean said he hoped may bring some closure to their families.

"To say that this is an extraordinary type of inquiry obviously is an understatement. We have never had to deal with this situation, such as arose out of the events of the 22nd of February, before," he said.

"The emotions of course are still raw."

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