WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand declared the effort to find anyone else alive in the rubble of last week’s massive earthquake to be over Thursday, saying no one who was trapped could have survived this long.
Families of more than 200 people listed as missing after the quake devastated the southern city of Christchurch on Feb. 22 had been holding out hope that a remarkable survival story would yet emerge. Officials say many of those listed as missing are among 161 bodies recovered but that have not yet been identified.
“We now face the reality that there is no chance that anyone could have survived this long, and efforts have to shift to the recovery of loved ones and their return to their families,” Civil Defence Emergency Management national controller John Hamilton told a news conference Thursday.
“As time has gone on, the chance of finding someone alive has diminished and, sadly, there becomes a point where the response effort shifts in focus from rescue to body recovery,” he said. “We have now reached that point.”
Among the missing and presumed dead are dozens of foreigners, most of them students and staff of an English language school that was in an office building that collapsed completely in the disaster.
Rescuers pulled 70 people from the rubble in the first 26 hours after the quake struck just before 1 p.m. on Feb. 22, but no one has been found alive since.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said New Zealanders’ hearts went out to the families of those missing both locally and from overseas.
“It is a terrible day,” he said. “It has been a tragic event and it has been something that none of us ever wanted or wished or even believed could happen in our city. So our thoughts, our hearts, our city, is with each and everyone of you.”
Two Israeli backpackers were the first foreigners named among the dead, as the painstaking work of confirming the identities of scores of others gained pace.
The process of identifying the victims has been slowed by the extensive injuries to people who were crushed, and by the task of picking through the vast amount of rubble left behind by the magnitude 6.3 temblor.
Police Superintendent Sam Hoyle said Thursday that one more body had been found overnight, taking the overall count to 161, though just 13 have been publicly identified. Many other people remain missing, and officials have said the final death toll could be more than 200.
Hoyle said 90 of the bodies found so far were pulled from the Canterbury Television building, which housed a regional broadcaster and other offices including the language school, which taught students from Japan, China, the Philippines and other nations.
He said police and those responsible for identifying bodies had met victims families to explain why the process of was proceeding so slowly.
Superintendent Russell Gibson, another police commander involved in the recovery operation, said Thursday work had finally started at the collapsed bell tower of the Christchurch cathedral, which had to be braced before crews could enter. Up to 22 bodies may be buried in the rubble.
Other parts of the city were slowly returning to normal, though many of the 350,000 residents still have cut or limited water and power supplies and are using thousands of portable toilets deployed on street corners because of damage to the sewage system.