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New Zealand quake death toll rises as frustration grows for relatives of missing

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand >> A woman plucked from a building that collapsed in this week’s earthquake went ahead with her planned wedding today — a bright spot in Christchurch as the death toll rose to 113 and relatives anguished over the missing.

Emma Howard told local media she was determined not to let Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude quake derail her plans for the wedding, even after she spent more than five hours trapped in a tiny cavity between the collapsed floors of an office building that was completely destroyed.

She managed to text fiance Chris Greenslade, who was outside his office across town when the disaster struck and raced to find her. He dug through the debris of her building, pulling others free as he tried to reach Howard, then helped direct the rescue crews that eventually found her, the New Zealand Herald reported.

The couple were all smiles as they exited the Christ of the King Church today — she in a white strapless dress with a large bow at the back, he in a dark suit and maroon tie — posing briefly for photographs before jumping in a car and heading off.

“I’m fortunate that everybody who we invited will be there,” Howard told Radio New Zealand earlier today. In fact, extra workmates and friends were flying in from around the country to join the party, she said.

In contrast, the mood was grim at a meeting among the local coroner, victim identification experts and relatives of some of the 228 people officially listed as missing.

Police Superintendent Derek Erasmus told reporters afterward that the families had asked many questions about the identification process of those killed, and the release of bodies.

When the families emerged from the meeting, many looking somber and shaken, one man shouted angrily at news crews standing nearby. A police officer told journalists the meeting had grown increasingly intense, and that the relatives were extremely upset.

Officials say 70 people were pulled from the wreckage in the first 25 hours after the magnitude 6.3 temblor hit, but that no one had made it out alive since.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the rescue phase of an operation involving hundreds of police, soldiers and others was drawing to a conclusion, and he was preparing to give families from several countries “the worst type of news.”

An English language school was in one of the hardest-hit buildings, the CTV office block, and students from Japan, China, the Philippines and other nations are believed to be among those inside when it collapsed. Police say up to 120 bodies are still inside and that no one is expected to have survived.

Many relatives of the missing arrived at Christchurch airport today, including about 20 from Japan, who were quickly whisked onto a bus by embassy officials.

Danny Campos, 27, stood in the arrivals hall with tears in his eyes, waiting for his uncle to arrive from Australia. His aunt, Elsa Torres, 53, was missing in the CTV building, where she worked as a translator for the language school.

“She’s a wonderful person. She’s a really clever person — really kind, really caring,” said Campos, whose family is originally from Peru. The family is “hoping that she’s alive, but unfortunately, we just have to sit down and wait.”

Officials have released the names of just six victims — all Christchurch residents, including two infant boys — and are sticking to a painstaking process of DNA or other scientific identification before telling families, to avoid mistakes.

The process means that some of the 113 bodies brought to a special morgue set up for the purpose are also included on the list of 228 people missing. Officials say they are working hard on reconciling the tallies and have appealed for patience.

More than 700 specialist teams from a host of countries and armed with acoustic equipment, high-tech cameras and sniffer dogs are taking part in the recovery operation. Heavy machinery is also be used.

“We are still hopeful that there still may be people rescued but it’s getting less and less likely,” Civil Defense Minister John Carter told reporters.

Workers today began gingerly picking through the piles of crumbled stone of the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, where the spire tower collapsed and where officials have said up to 22 bodies may lay entombed. Workers started removing loose masonry from the site to allow recovery teams in to retrieve the bodies, the city council said.

Another city emblem, the towering Hotel Grand Chancellor, had stopped moving on its foundations and was no longer in danger of imminent collapse, the Civil Defense Ministry said. Officials have said the badly listing building is beyond repair and will have to be demolished.

Parker said about half the city of 350,000 had water that might be contaminated and the other half had none, and urged all to take boil any water before drinking or cooking with it. The gradual restoration of power had reached 80 percent of the city, supplier Origin said.

Residents have been urged to stay near home to stay out of the way of recovery workers and avoid shaky buildings.

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