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UPDATE: Death Toll Rising From Christchurch Earthquake

February 23, 2011

The official death toll resulting from Tuesday’s a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in the New Zealand city of Christchurch has climbed to 75, but that number is expected to rise even more–especially now that police called off the search for survivors at a television office building, the Daily Mail reported Wednesday morning.

The website of the British newspaper said that between 80 and 100 or more people are believed to have been in the Canterbury TV building, which was badly damaged by the tremors that reportedly started around 12:50pm local time on Tuesday.

Rescue workers told the Daily Mail that they were “100% certain” that there were no remaining survivors, and Police Operations Commander Dave Lawry added that the building itself was in danger of collapsing and that he we was “not going to risk my staff [searching] for people who I believe have no chance of survivability.”

Among those believed to in the building at the time of the quake were 15 Canterbury TV employees and as many as 10 Japanese schoolchildren visiting the facility.

“My heart goes out to those families… knowing that some of their children have probably been killed in this incident,” Lawry added. “We will do the very best for your people that we can.”

Tuesday’s earthquake was the second to strike the Christchurch region in a period of roughly six months. Last September, the city experienced a 7.0 magnitude seismic event that caused little damage and resulted in no fatalities–a stark contrast to this week’s earthquake, which has left the area under a state of emergency and could go down “as one of the most catastrophic in New Zealand’s history,” according to BBC News Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos.

The 2010 earthquake was “hailed as a miracle” by experts, as tremors of a similar magnitude resulted in 220,000 fatalities in Haiti in January of that year, the AFP reported late Tuesday.

According to what University of Canterbury seismologist John Townend told the wire service, there were a number of reasons why Tuesday’s quake did more damage, despite technically being weaker. The location of the most recent quake was closer to the city center that its predecessor, and while the September event occurred very early in the morning, at a time when there would be fewer people in office buildings and on the streets, Tuesday’s occurred in the lunchtime hours.

Furthermore, the earlier tremors would have weakened the structural integrity of buildings, making them weaker and less resistant to future seismic events.

“We were very lucky in September and perhaps we were a little bit complacent because the damage was limited to buildings, roads and infrastructure,” Townend told Radio New Zealand, comments that were reprinted by the AFP.

“The fact that it happened at 4:05am also meant that very few people were out to be exposed to it… in general an earthquake of this size happening so close to a city, even a well-prepared one, is always going to cause major damage,” he added.

According to Gary Gibson, a seismologist at the University of Melbourne, Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s southern island, rests on a secondary fault line. That, according to the AFP, means that quakes in the region tend to be more destructive as they occur closer to the surface.

Gibson also told the French news agency that the city had experienced 20 aftershocks since Tuesday’s earthquake, and that while they would eventually become less intense, they were expected to continue for several weeks. BBC News had previously reported that four aftershocks, each at least 5.0 in magnitude, occurred in the first seven hours after the original earthquake.

According to AP Science Writer Alicia Chang, scientists are classifying Tuesday’s earthquake as an aftershock of the September 4 one, and despite the damage and the growing number of those killed or wounded as a result of the event, one geology professor told Chang that it could have been much worse.

“New Zealand has some of the most progressive building codes in the world,” Robert Yeats of Oregon State University said in a statement, quoted by the AP reporter Tuesday. “They are better prepared for an earthquake like this than many U.S. cities would be.”

According to the AFP, the most recent Christchurch earthquake was “the most deadly to hit New Zealand since a 7.8-magnitude tremor killed 256 people in the Hawke’s Bay region in 1931.”

Image Caption: Christchurch Cathedral as seen by a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K Orion that conducted aerial surveillance of affected areas. Credit: New Zealand Defence Force/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

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