THE first 16 bodies of earthquake victims were released to grieving families yesterday and 12 more should follow today, Christchurch chief coroner Neil Maclean said yesterday, as police warned the final death toll is expected to be around 240.
Hoping to help allay the frustration of relatives waiting for answers, Mr Maclean said distressed families were wrong to believe they would be able to identify their loved ones if only they saw them. He said many of the bodies were not intact and had suffered gross trauma.
It was hoped that DNA advances since the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, which allowed testing of minute body parts, would ensure that most were eventually identified, he said.
Mr Maclean said 200 people were working on the remains to collate DNA samples from the victims with samples from toothbrushes or hairbrushes, gather information from family and witnesses, and check for dental and fingerprint evidence.
Coroner Sue Johnson said families should be assured that appropriate religious representatives had been present to say words over each body before the scientific work began. She said most would not require an internal autopsy.
An elderly woman has been confirmed as the second Australian to have died in the quake. A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman said the woman had lived in Christchurch with family for several years.
Police superintendent Dave Cliff confirmed that 240 was “solidifying” as the probable final death toll. He said it was not “locked in stone”, as missing people were turning up, and others were being reported missing, but that people should prepare themselves for that figure.
Mayor Bob Parker said the city would do its best to accommodate any request that came from Prime Minister John Key to allow Japanese families to visit the site of their relatives’ deaths in the collapsed CTV building, which had been home to an English-language school.
Christchurch residents have been warned to stay away from all beaches because raw sewage is being discharged into the sea. Households without a waste water system have been told to use double plastic bags in their toilet bowls and then dump the bags in bins that will be provided. Thirty thousand chemical toilets have been ordered from overseas but are yet to arrive.
The city’s water supply has been chlorinated but residents are still being warned to boil all water before drinking it. About 35,000 households do not have running water.
Mr Parker warned of strong winds today and urged people to consider face masks as protection against silt and dust, but said he had received no specific warnings about the risk of asbestos in dust from the wreckage.
He said two men working on a plinth that had held a statue of the city’s founder, Irishman John Godley, had chanced upon a message in a glass bottle and a metal cylinder believed to be a time capsule put there when the statue was erected. They were given to the local museum in the hope it would produce “the vision of our forebears”, Mr Parker said.
He defended the city’s building regulations, saying that they met the international standards for earthquake resistance but that the 6.3 magnitude quake of last week had the kind of acceleration and vertical lift that produced the devastation of an earthquake higher on the Richter scale.
More than 50,000 people have flown out of the city since the quake.
■ A large earthquake last night rattled Wellington but police said there had been no reports of damage. The widely-felt earthquake hit just after 8pm Melbourne time.