Machines signal end of Christchurch earthquake rescue

CRUSHING BLOW: A mountain of masonry litters Cathedral Square in the heart of the city, following the earthquake.
CRUSHING BLOW: A mountain of masonry litters Cathedral Square in the heart of the city, following the earthquake.

Today, Christchurch starts picking up its pieces.

Ten days after the city was violently shaken, big machines will roll in the streets, clearing debris and picking up the mangled remains of the buildings that stood at its heart.

The city is moving from rescue to recovery.

"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 national controller John Hamilton said.

So far, it was known that 161 lives had been lost to the rubble. Yesterday, it was learned that people of up to 20 countries would be among the final death toll, which would probably finish about 220.

"We need to be realistic and we need to help families through what is now a grim reality," Mr Hamilton said.

About 70 people have been hauled alive from collapsed buildings, but the last survivor came out a little over 24 hours after the earthquake. The international standard for expecting survivors is usually 72 hours.

The change of approach by rescue workers today means they will now start to clear away and carefully "deconstruct" what is left of the broken buildings.

Many of those buildings, so far, have only been accessed by search dogs and cameras, so there are parts that have not been seen.

Most of the collapsed buildings will be lifted open and "unpicked" with heavy machinery that had, till now, stayed away while there was still the prospect of finding survivors inside.

At a handful of sites, including the PGC and CTV buildings and Christ Church Cathedral, work will carry on as before in the slim hope of finding a miracle survivor.

"It is highly, highly unlikely that we will encounter anybody who is alive," Fire Service national manager for special operations Jim Stuart-Black said. "But clearly, there is an occasional miracle, so we conduct our operations to allow for that miracle."

Care was also important, considering the certainty that there would be further bodies to be dug from the wreckage, he said.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker, a relentless voice of optimism since last Tuesday, acknowledged that any dim hope for survivors had all but disappeared.

"The reality is that a decision had to be made. It is part of being honest and open and giving clarity to this situation that we're in."

Across the city, more than 900 people from 12 countries and organisations have helped the rescue effort during the past 10 days.

Prime Minister John Key again paid tribute to their efforts yesterday.

He said he had met many of the foreign families in Christchurch who were waiting for news about their loved ones.

"All New Zealanders grieve with you and are thinking of you.

"To everyone involved in the rescue effort from here and overseas, can I extend the country's thanks for your tireless efforts in what has been a very difficult and dangerous environment. There have been many stories of courage and bravery and I'm sure that many more will emerge over the coming days."