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 today.
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 earthquake.
Police Superintendent Sam Hoyle said today 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.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
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 this morning. The winds, gusting to 55 mph, had blown clouds of dust through the city, forcing residents and rescuers to don face masks.
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.