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New Zealand falls silent for quake victims

New Zealand fell silent for two minutes on Tuesday to honour victims of the Christchurch earthquake, exactly one week after the disaster left more than 240 people dead and missing.

world Updated: Mar 01, 2011 08:03 IST

New Zealand fell silent for two minutes on Tuesday to honour victims of the Christchurch earthquake, exactly one week after the disaster left more than 240 people dead and missing.

At 12.51pm (2351 GMT Monday), the moment seven days ago that a 6.3-magnitude quake devastated New Zealand's second largest city, the entire country stopped in sombre tribute.

"We remember at this time all those who died as a result of the February 22 earthquake," Christchurch's Anglican Dean Peter Beck said, recalling the tremor that toppled the spire of his cathedral, entombing up to 22 people.

As flags flew at half mast around the country, Prime Minister John Key stood in the centre of the stricken city in mute tribute to those killed in what he has called "one of New Zealand's darkest days".

Emergency crews from around the world, in the stricken city to help relief efforts, briefly set aside the grim task of combing through the wreckage, removing their helmets and bowing their heads.

Elsewhere, crowds gathered at countless church services around the country, remembering the violent shake that brought down entire office buildings and tore up roads as it reduced much of central Christchurch to smouldering rubble.

At Wellington Cathedral, the numbers spilled over onto the building's steps, with many weeping openly.

The official death toll from the disaster stood at 154 but police said it was likely to rise to 240, up from a previous estimate of more than 200.

"We need to start considering the figure of around 240 but (it's) not locked in stone, because we're still getting information in," district commander Dave Cliff told reporters.

As the estimate of fatalities rose, Key promised a major inquiry, saying there were legitimate questions about why so many office blocks collapsed in supposedly "quake-proof" Christchurch.

"There has to be an inquiry," Key told Radio New Zealand, as rescuers continued to sift through the city's ruins for bodies.

"We have to provide answers to people about why so many people lost their lives and we have to learn lessons from the earthquake."

Key said the quake may simply have been a violent act of nature but the country owed it to the dead to find out if the destruction could have been prevented.

"Some things may have been just beyond our control, it's an act of nature and it's had a devastating effect, but we owe it to those people to give them answers about what went wrong," he said.

Officials warned the catastrophe would also hit the country's struggling economy, wiping out any growth in the financial year to June.

"June-to-June could be close to zero growth," Finance Minister Bill English told public radio.

"It's a different outlook from what we expected six months ago but we'll just have to roll with the punches."

The exhausted emergency crews, who have scoured the ruins with sniffer dogs and sensitive listening devices for seven days have admitted there is little hope of finding more survivors.

"It is probably highly unlikely that we will encounter live victims within collapsed structures," the fire service's rescue operation manager Jim Stuart-Black told reporters.

No one has been found alive since a woman was pulled from a collapsed office building on Wednesday afternoon, a day after the quake hit. Rescuers had said earlier they hoped for a miracle.

The scarred city is also experiencing violent aftershocks, with one measuring 4.3 hitting on Tuesday, creating treacherous conditions for rescuers.

The shakes have opened cracks in a cliff overlooking suburban streets and threaten to cause landslips, forcing residents to flee their homes and further jarring the stretched nerves of locals.

In one small piece of good news, a windstorm forecast to pack gusts of up to 130 kilometres (80 miles) per hour failed to materialise Monday but forecasters said gale force winds could still whip through the city on Tuesday night.