- Associated Press - Saturday, February 26, 2011

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s prime minister said the Christchurch quake may be the country’s worst disaster ever, as officials raised the toll Saturday to 145 dead and more than 200 missing while giving a grim prognosis for the city’s downtown.

Engineers and planners said the city’s decimated central area may be completely unusable for months to come and that at least a third of the buildings must be razed and rebuilt after last Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude quake.

On the outer edge of the central district, Brent Smith watched in tears as workers demolished the 1850s-era building where he lived and ran a bed and breakfast and where antique jugs and a $6,000 Victorian bed were reduced to shards and firewood.

His three daughters hugged him, also weeping.

“You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I’ve been doing more of the latter,” Mr. Smith said.

Prime Minister John Key said the government would announce an aid package Monday for an estimated 50,000 people who will be out of work for months due to the closure of downtown. Mr. Key, who spent some of the afternoon talking to families who lost loved ones in the disaster, called for two minutes of silence next Tuesday to remember both the victims and the ordeal of the survivors.

“This may be New Zealand’s single-most tragic event,” Mr. Key said.

The death toll rose to 145 after additional bodies were pulled from the wreckage, Police Superintendent David Cliff said. He said there was an additional list of more than 200 people and that there were “grave fears” about their fate.

His comments suggest the eventual death toll could make this New Zealand’s deadliest disaster ever. Currently, the country’s worst disaster was the 1931 Napier earthquake on North Island in which at least 256 people died.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker assured relatives of the missing — including people from several countries who have converged on this southern New Zealand city of 350,000— that every effort was being made to locate any remaining survivors.

Rescue and recovery efforts were hampered by continuing aftershocks, which sent masonry tumbling down, and a cat sparked a false alarm over a possible survivor.

No one was found alive overnight as a multinational team of more than 600 rescuers scoured the city’s central district, although a paramedic reported hearing voices in one destroyed building early Saturday, Police Superintendent Russel Gibson said.

“We mobilized a significant number of people and sent a dog in again — and a cat jumped out,” Mr. Gibson said, adding that a rescue team removed “a significant amount of rubble to be 100 percent” certain that no person was trapped inside.

Police have said up to 120 bodies may be entombed in the ruins of the downtown CTV building alone, where dozens of foreign students from an international school were believed trapped.

Still, Mr. Gibson said rescuers weren’t completely ruling out good news.

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