NZ quake city prays for miracles amid rubble, toll 146

CHRISTCHURCH Sun Feb 27, 2011 1:46am GMT

CHRISTCHURCH Feb 27 (Reuters) - Rescuers pulled apart levelled buildings in New Zealand's quake-hit city of Christchurch on Sunday as the death toll climbed to 146 and people gathered to pray that survivors will be found six days after the devastating tremor.

Rescue teams from New Zealand and seven countries, including the United States, China, Japan, and Australia, have been scouring ruined buildings in the central city and suburban areas hardest hit by Tuesday's 6.3 tremor -- but found only the dead.

"They can see bodies that they are trying to get out," police shift commander Russell Gibson said.

The dead include people from 20 nations, including dozens of students from Japan, China, and Taiwan who were in Christchurch, one of New Zealand's most attractive cities, to learn English in view of the country's dramatic southern Alps.

The city's mayor clung to the hope that more would be found alive, even as aftershocks brought down masonry and sent rescue teams scrambling for safety.

"I will not stop hoping that we will find people alive in the damaged structures of our city until I am told by the police and the urban search and rescue teams that no such optimism can exist any longer," Bob Parker told reporters.

No survivors have been rescued since mid-afternoon on Wednesday. The number of missing remains at more than 200, but police have said it is likely that the number includes recovered bodies that have yet to be identified.

Prime Minister John Key has called for a two-minute national silence on March 1 as a sign of unity for the people of Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city, and to grieve for people killed in the country's worst natural disaster for 80 years.

"For now we must do all we can to show its people that all of New Zealand grieves with them," said Key.

PRAYING

At the historic 155-year-old stone-built Holy Trinity Anglican Church on the fringes of the devastated city centre, Reverend Hugh Bowron said parishioners at the first service since the quake were still stunned.

"The church was badly damaged in the last earthquake, and won't be repairable now, so the sense of hope has taken on a much grittier edge'" Bowron told Reuters.

"But most people were delighted just to be with each other, just to know that others were still alive."

In the central city, the painstaking search concentrated on a finance company office block, the city's landmark cathedral and a local television building, which housed an English language school.

Japanese, Chinese and English teams joined locals to pull apart the buildings, where floors pancaked on top of each other, brick by brick.

"What we're doing is removing the debris, we're looking for voids or spaces where there may be the living," said fire rescue head Jim Stuart Black.

Rescuers crawled through large steel tubes to get into the core of the cathedral, where around 20 bodies are believed trapped.

Engineers were also moving to prop up the teetering 26-storey Hotel Grand Chancellor, which had hampered search operations because of fears it would collapse and bring down adjoining buildings.

In the devastated eastern suburbs nearest the quake epicentre, where hundreds of homes have been marked with red tape for demolition, thousands of volunteers delivered food parcels and water, and shovelled metre-deep grey silt that had squirted through roads and gardens.

But there was frustration that relief and repair efforts in the city of 400,000, New Zealand's second biggest, were not happening fast enough.

"We're just trying to look out for one another. The aftershocks are still sending us flying," said Dave Pascoe in the poorer suburb of Aranui.

Making things worse was a string of burglaries by local youths, Pascoe said.

A handful of people have been arrested for looting as police, boosted by more than 300 officers from Australia, and troops in armoured personnel carriers have locked down the city centre and enforced a dusk to dawn curfew. (Writing by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Sugita Katyal)