UK disaster victim identification experts head to NZ

Image caption,
Rescuers scour the ruins of a TV headquarters where scores of students are feared buried

A British team of disaster victim identification experts is heading to New Zealand as hopes fade of finding survivors of the country's earthquake.

A British specialist rescue team is already working in Christchurch.

More than 220 people remain missing in the wake of Tuesday's quake, which has so far claimed 144 lives.

Amongst the dead are two Britons. Next of kin have been informed. One has been named as Gregory Tobin, a 25-year-old chef, from Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

British High Commission spokesman Chris Harrington said he believed seven UK nationals were also on the missing list.

"There are around 16 to 20 people missing in the city's Cathedral and there is a chance that some will be tourists," he added.

Survivor hope

The deployment of the disaster team - which is due to arrive in Christchurch on Monday - comes after New Zealand accepted an offer of help from the British government.

High Commissioner to New Zealand Vicki Treadell said: "With New Zealand and Britain being such close friends, this is an opportunity to support and assist each other at this time of crisis."

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck at a shallow depth of 5km (3.1 miles) early in the afternoon on Tuesday.

Rescuers believe many bodies lie beneath collapsed structures, but no survivors have been found in the rubble of Christchurch since Wednesday.

The 61-strong UK search-and-rescue team - which landed in Christchurch on Thursday, joining experts from the US, Japan and Australia - has recovered three bodies from the wreckage so far.

The team spent Saturday searching for signs of life among the ruins of the Pyne Gould Corporation building in the centre of the city.

They used acoustic listening equipment to try to detect the sound of breathing or people tapping to attract attention.

A spokesman for the team said: "At the moment they're working on the assumption that there may still be people alive in there, although it is several days on now.

"It's a very well-ordered operation and they've got the climate in their favour as it's not too hot or too cold, which means there's potential for people to be alive in there.

"As long as they've got access to water they could survive for up to 10 days."

The British High Commission said the two dead Britons had "got on a certain bus, which was crushed by falling masonry".

Mr Tobin had been on a round-the-world trip and had been working at a restaurant in Christchurch when he was killed in the quake.

One of the tributes to him on Facebook read: "Such a nice guy and at such a young age."

Emergency centre

Media caption,
The BBC's Rachel Harvey explains how rescuers mark buildings they search

Meanwhile, British families waiting for news of their loved ones caught up in the disaster are still clinging to hopes for their safety.

Jo Morley, 44, whose brother Phil Coppeard from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk is among the Britons missing, was taking comfort from the miraculous tales of survival following the Haiti earthquake.

She said: "Of course you still hope, as anybody would do. That's what we have to think."

Chartered accountant Mr Coppeard, 41, emigrated to the country in November with his wife Suzanne Craig and was doing a masters in economics at the University of Canterbury.

He was travelling into town on a bus when the earthquake struck.

The Foreign Office has set up a crisis centre at a hotel near Christchurch airport to issue emergency passports and help its citizens escape the quake zone.

A helpline on 020 7008 8765 has been set up for concerned friends and relatives in the UK.

British nationals in New Zealand are advised to call 049 242 898 for advice and assistance. The Foreign Office website has more information about the consular assistance being provided.

Meanwhile, tributes have been paid to Irishman Owen McKenna, originally from Emyvale in County Monaghan, who died in the quake when his car was crushed by falling debris.

Two Irish people are still missing.

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