WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Two Israeli backpackers were the first foreigners named among the dead in last week's earthquake in New Zealand, as the painstaking work of confirming the identities of scores of others gained pace Thursday.
Officials expect the number of foreigners killed in the Feb. 22 quake that devastated Christchurch to rise into the dozens, many of them Asian students and staff at an English language school that was in an office building that collapsed.
The process of identifying the victims has been slowed by the extensive injuries to people who were crushed, and by the task of picking through the vast amount of rubble left behind by the magnitude 6.3 temblor.
Police Superintendent Sam Hoyle said Thursday that one more body had been found overnight, taking the overall count to 161, though just 13 have been publicly identified. Many other people remain missing, and officials have said the final death toll could be as high as 240.
Hoyle said 90 of the bodies found so far were pulled from the Canterbury Television building, which housed a regional broadcaster and other offices including the language school, which taught students from Japan, China, the Philippines and other nations.
He said police and those responsible for identifying bodies had met victims families to explain why the process of identifying and releasing bodies for burial was proceeding so slowly.
"We fully understand the necessity of providing families with information and explaining why we have to be sure we have the correct identities of those who have died," he said.
The bodies of seven of the 13 identified were released Wednesday, Hoyle said.
High winds that hampered rescue operations on Wednesday abated Thursday morning. The winds, gusting to 55 mph (90 kph), had blown clouds of dust through the city, forcing residents and rescuers to don face masks.
Gusts tossed debris around the downtown area and forced rescuers to briefly abandon the use of cranes.
Superintendent Russell Gibson, another police commander involved in the recovery operation, said work had finally started at the collapsed bell tower of the Christchurch cathedral, which had to be braced before crews could enter. Police say up to 22 bodies may be buried in the rubble.
"They've now started taking away beams and things from the bell tower, so we are at last going to see some movement in that area," Gibson said.
The cordon around the hard-hit downtown area was loosened briefly on Thursday to allow business owners to enter and inspect their properties, accompanied by authorities.
Other parts of the city were slowly returning to normal, though many of the 350,000 residents still have cut or limited water and power supplies and are using thousands of portable toilets deployed on street corners because of damage to the sewage system.