World

New Zealand quake death toll hits 160

Recovery crews pulled five more bodies from the rubble in the New Zealand city of Christchurch overnight, bringing the total death toll from last week's devastating quake to 160.

Some bodies may never be recovered, police say

Police officers walk through rubble in central Christchurch on Wednesday. High winds and aftershocks are slowing the earthquake recovery effort, officials say. ((Mark Baker/Reuters))

Recovery crews pulled five more bodies from the rubble in the New Zealand city of Christchurch overnight, bringing the total death toll from last week's devastating quake to 160.

Many more people remain missing, and the bodies of some victims may never be recovered because they were pulverized by the buildings that collapsed around them, police said Wednesday.

Police superintendent Dave Cliff has said the final death toll will likely be around 240.

More than 900 urban disaster specialists are working at sites across the southern city picking through the remains of wrecked buildings and clearing away debris, as the massive operation moved into its second week.

No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since 26 hours after the Feb. 22 quake, and officials are pessimistic about finding any other survivors.

Authorities have appealed for patience from families waiting for news of missing relatives, saying that the remains of some people who were caught in falling buildings can be identified only through DNA testing or dental records.

"There may be some cases where, because of the enormous forces involved in this, that it may not be possible to retrieve bodies in all cases," Cliff told reporters Wednesday. "We need to alert people to that possibility."

Among those listed as missing are an unknown number of students and staff from Japan, China and other countries who were at an English language school that was housed in one of two office buildings that completely collapsed in the quake. Police said last week that up to 120 bodies were inside the Canterbury Television, or CTV, building, where the language school was located.

Aftershocks, strong winds slow recovery

The operation to recover bodies has been slowed by near constant aftershocks that have rumbled through the city, threatening to bring further debris raining down from damaged buildings.

Strong winds were also hampering rescue and recovery operations Wednesday, threatening to bring down bricks and masonry from already-damaged buildings and spreading clouds of dust around the city.

Some of the city's 350,000 residents donned face masks when they went outside to protect themselves from the dust.

The magnitude 6.3 quake struck within a few kilometres of downtown Christchurch, when the city was bustling with workers, shoppers and tourists going about their weekday afternoon activities. It brought down or badly damaged office towers, churches and thousands of homes across the city.

Officials were preparing to finally begin clearing the rubble from the spire of the city's iconic cathedral, which collapsed and has been too unstable for crews to enter. At least 22 bodies are believed to lie underneath.

A steel structure several stories high has been constructed and was being moved into position Wednesday to brace the walls of the cathedral so workers could dig into the piles of stone and bricks.

Prime Minister John Key said Tuesday that a commission of inquiry would investigate the circumstances of the quake, including a detailed look at why the CTV building and the other hardest-hit, the Pyne Gould Guinness building, collapsed.