- 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.

“I talked to experts who say we’ve worked on buildings like this overseas and we get miracles. New Zealand deserves a few miracles,” he said.

The King’s Education language school released a list of missing people presumed in the building: nine teachers and 51 students — 26 Japanese, 14 Chinese, six Filipinos, three Thais, one South Korean and one Czech. An additional 20 students were listed with “status unknown.”

The city’s central business district will take several months to recover, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said, adding that “most of the services, in fact all of the services that are offered in the CBD, will need to relocate elsewhere.”

Damaged buildings will need to be bulldozed and rebuilt “so that people can have confidence about coming back into the area to transact any business that’s here.”

One in three of the central city’s buildings were severely damaged in the quake and must be demolished, earthquake engineer Jason Ingham said.

In one neighborhood, the Butcher family spent Saturday retrieving a handful of salvagable belongings from their destroyed house — a couple of blankets, a stack of dishes, a Mickey Mouse mug, a box of crackers. They’re staying with friends, but hope to buy a campervan.

Maree Butcher, 49, said she finds herself shaking awake with memories of Tuesday’s horror every night around 3:30 a.m. She lies in bed and stares at her husband, Norm, who was nearly killed racing out the back door of their home as the brick walls blew out around him and the top floor collapsed to the ground.

Mr. Butcher tried to cheer her up, nodding toward the wreckage and saying, “I really did want the open entertainment area.”

Mrs. Butcher smiled. “We’ve lost our house and belongings,” she said. “But we’re still alive.”

Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau, in Christchurch, New Zealand; Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand; and Ian Mader in Sydney, Australia, contributed to this report.

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