Anguished family members visited collapsed buildings Wednesday where bodies of their loved ones lie trapped more than a week after New Zealand's earthquake, as officials said some remains may never be recovered from the rubble.
An official tour of the worst-hit sites in the Feb. 22 disaster was the first time many relatives had been so close to the places where the estimated 240 victims died.
"The mood was somber and it was very emotional for them," police Superintendent Dave Cliff said. About 250 foreigners and 100 New Zealanders were among the family members who went on the trip. News crews were not invited.
An unknown number of students and staff from Japan, China and other countries were at an English-language school in one of the two office buildings that completely collapsed in the magnitude-6.3 quake. Police said last week that up to 120 bodies were inside the Canterbury Television, or CTV, building where the language school was located.
Cliff said five more bodies had been pulled from the rubble by recovery teams overnight Tuesday and on Wednesday, taking the confirmed death toll to 160. Many more people remain missing, and Cliff has said the final tally is likely to be around 240.
Police said the bodies of some victims may never be recovered because they were pulverized by the buildings that collapsed around them.
Authorities have appealed for patience from families waiting for news of missing relatives, saying 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.
An international team of more than 900 urban disaster specialists picked their way through wrecked buildings and cleared away debris on Wednesday, as the massive operation moved into its second week.
No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since 26 hours after the quake, and officials are pessimistic about finding any other survivors.
The search has been slowed by near-constant aftershocks that have rumbled through the city, threatening to bring more debris raining down from damaged buildings.
Further hampering efforts Wednesday were winds gusting up to 60 mph (90 kph) that blew clouds of dust, whipped sheets of roofing tin across the disaster zone, and caused crane-lifted gondolas used by recovery teams to sway dangerously.
Russell Wood, who heads the search and rescue operation, said crane use and some other activities were curtailed because of the winds but that the overall operation continued.
The quake struck within a few miles (kilometers) 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 churches, office towers 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 to 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.
- Dave Cliff