Muffled church bells signalled the moment — 12.51 p.m. (11:51 p.m. British time) — a week ago when the magnitude 6.3 quake struck, levelling buildings and sending masonry and bricks onto streets filled with lunchtime shoppers and office workers.
The scale of the disaster meant the national state of emergency declared last week has been extended for a further seven days and is likely to continue for weeks to come, Civil Defence Minister John Carter said.
In the middle of the city, which bore the brunt of the quake, politicians, local officials, rescuers and church leaders gathered around a simple memorial of several bricks taken from the worst hit buildings, covered in flowers.
“We gather to reflect on the precious gift of life,” said the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, whose landmark cathedral was badly damaged and is believed to still have up to 22 bodies inside.
Rescue workers, who have toiled day and night since the quake looking for survivors, downed tools and briefly stopped work amid the rubble of levelled buildings.
In Christchurch city near the devastated commercial centre, people stood on pavements, beside stopped cars, some holding hands or arm in arm with others, some weeping.
“People just stopped. We went outside and lined the street in silence,” said waitress Danielle Gear at one of few cafes to have reopened near a row of tumbled shops in suburban Merivale.
In the capital Wellington, around 4,000 people gathered outside the parliament, where flags at half mast flapped in a cool breeze under leaden skies.
Similar sombre gatherings — large and small — were reported around the country of 4.4 million. In Australia, which has sent more than 200 rescue workers and medical staff, the parliament also observed the silence.
No survivors have been found since last week, and police have said the final death toll will probably be around 240, making it the country’s second worst natural disaster after the 1931 Napier earthquake, which killed 256.
Late in the day emergency stabilisation work was completed on the 26-storey Grand Chancellor hotel, which has been deemed as highly likely to collapse, allowing rescue workers to enter as far as the fifth floor.
Rubble in the building’s stairwell meant access was only available up to the fifth floor at this stage, with no bodies recovered.
INQUIRY INTO BUILDINGS SAFETY
Prime Minister John Key has said there will be an inquiry into how buildings in the city hit by last September’s force 7.1 quake were passed as safe for use.
“This is an event which has claimed the lives of many, many people so we need to provide some answers…both within the buildings where there’s been wide loss of life (and) the wider issues around the adequacy of the building code,” Key said.
Concern had been raised about the condition of the 25-year-old Canterbury Television Building, which housed a language school and where nearly half the confirmed dead were killed. Reuters