N.Z. earthquake death toll climbs to 113

New Zealand's prime minister is warning that the death toll from the devastating earthquake in Christchurch could be "much greater" than feared as hope fades in the search for the missing.

New Zealand's prime minister is warning that the death toll from the devastating earthquake in Christchurch could be "much greater" than feared as hope fades in the search for the missing.

Police confirmed Thursday that 113 people had died and 228 were missing following Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude quake. Seventy "live rescues" were reported.

Search-and-rescue teams armed with sniffer dogs and thermal imaging equipment were still combing through the rubble Thursday in a frantic search for signs of life, though officials noted that it's been more than 24-hours since someone was pulled from the wreckage alive.

"We are obviously very fearful tonight that the death toll could be much greater than any of us have ever feared," Prime Minister John Key said.

He said police were actively working with families in hard-hit areas to try to identify and locate missing people.

Fire rescue co-ordinator Jim Stuart Black said crews are not giving up hope just yet.

"We're optimistic but we're also recognizing the fact that with each passing hour, it gets more and more unlikely that we're going to find signs of life," he said.

"So we're hoping for the best, but we also prepare for the worst and know what happens over the course of time."

Police said they have grave concerns about the people trapped in the Canterbury Television, or CTV building, including dozens of foreign students were believed buried when an English-language school collapsed along with other offices.

Key said the students from Japan, Thailand, China and other Asian countries "have potentially lost their lives."

Search and rescue

Hundreds of foreign specialists — from the U.S., Britain, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan — are helping local police and soldiers as they try to broaden their search to smaller buildings not yet checked.

"Now we've got the capability of going out and doing searches in areas where there may still be people trapped that hitherto we haven't been able to address," Civil Defence Minister John Carters said.

Teams dressed in blue coveralls and orange helmets and with sniffer dogs moved along city streets lined with one- and two-storey office buildings, small stores, restaurants and cafes.

They went building to building. At times, a dog would let out a bark and rush excitedly into the rubble, the rescuers following gingerly after them. At one place, they uncovered a body pinned under a huge chunk of concrete.

Mayor Bob Parker said Thursday that roughly 60 per cent of a broad area of the inner city had undergone preliminary checks, with searchers marking some buildings as too dangerous to enter, and others as needing more detailed checks later.

Source: The Associated Press

Police said up to 120 bodies may be trapped in the building. Twenty-three bodies were pulled from the building Thursday, but they were not immediately identified.

"The longer I don't know what happened, the longer my agony becomes," said Rolando Cabunilas, 34, a steel worker from the Philippines whose wife, Ivy Jane, was on her second day of class at the school when the quake struck. She hasn't been heard from since.

"I can't describe it — it's pain, anger, all emotions," he said.

Officials appealed to families of the missing to be patient, saying the agony could be worse if they rushed the identifications and came to wrong conclusions.

The search has been slowed by concerns over crumbling buildings and damaged infrastructure.

Parker said the city's water system was in disarray, and urged residents to boil water before using it to drink, wash or cook because of the risk of disease.

Fourteen water tankers have been dispatched around the city for people to fill buckets or other containers, and residents were urged not to flush toilets or use showers.

Power was restored to 75 per cent of the city, but it could take weeks to repair supplies to the rest, said Roger Sutton, CEO of supplier Orion.

Freelance videographer and reporter Joe Morgan said small aftershocks were still rumbling through the area every few hours.

Tuesday's quake was the second major temblor to strike the city in the past five months.

It was less powerful than the 7.1 temblor that struck before dawn on Sept. 4, damaging buildings but killing no one. Experts said Tuesday's quake was deadlier because it was closer to the city and because more people were about.

New Zealand sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching from Chile in South America through Alaska and down through the South Pacific. It records more than 14,000 earthquakes a year. (CBC)

With files from The Associated Press and The Australian Broadcasting Corporation