Survival stories from New Zealand earthquake

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Media captionPeter Symms and his wife were rescued from a collapsed cinema

Christchurch is beginning to bury its dead but extraordinary stories of heroism and survival are still emerging in New Zealand's earthquake-hit city.

For some the difference between life and death was measured in just a few centimetres.

At the main hospital, 73-year-old Peter Symms, a retired lecturer from the Scottish borders south of Edinburgh, bears the bloodied scars of a terrifying ordeal.

On a rainy lunchtime last Tuesday, Peter and his wife had settled in to watch Fair Game, a political thriller at the cinema, when the magnitude 6.3 quake tore through Christchurch.

'Lights went out'

"We got to about three quarters of the way through the film, and then there was this bloody great explosion and the whole building started shaking," he told the BBC from his hospital bed.

"The lights went out. My wife and I grabbed each other, and I think I must have passed out, and when I came to I could see the sky above.

"There was a concrete beam which came down, which is probably what did the damage. The seats had collapsed and my leg was wedged underneath a row of seats and some timber.

"And two men came in, and eventually a third man who was the duty manager for the cinema and they managed to get me out, and that was incredibly brave because there were aftershocks going all the time."

Mr Symms had been saved by the bravery of strangers. He had suffered a fractured skull, while parts of the left side of his body, including ribs and an arm, were crushed.

'Covered in blood'

Speaking publicly for the first time, he was moved to tears as he recounted parts of his astonishing experience.

Image caption British workers have been involved in the search-and-rescue operation in Christchurch

"One of the people that lifted me out was, I think, from Seattle. And he was a lightly built man, about 60," he said.

"Quite incredible, he got completely covered in my blood. And then other people, when we got outside, which took about 15 minutes, they came up and they put their clothes over me and over my wife. So it was really quite amazing."

While some have escaped death by the narrowest of margins - another few centimetres and Mr Symms would probably be dead - many others here have lost their homes.

They face the awful prospect of having to conquer their fears of more earthquakes if they are to stay and start again.

Siobhan Grimshaw, an occupational therapist from Newcastle in County Down, who migrated to New Zealand seven years ago, is not sure if her family will rebuild their shattered home that was a couple of kilometres from the quake's epicenter.

'Nowhere safe'

"Initially all I could think of was that we had to get out of Christchurch. I thought we could go and live in Australia, but I thought no, floods [there]," she said.

"Nowhere is safe. I was telling my husband we have to get out of Christchurch and we can't ever live here again. And he was saying 'Yes we can, it'll be alright, we can rebuild'.

"I've settled down and I can see that, yes, we can rebuild, maybe," Mrs Grimshaw said with some hesitation moments after another aftershock had caused the ground to shake.

In this nervous city, the search for survivors continues but hopes are fading as each hour passes.

Only a handful of the dead have been formally identified and the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Vicki Treadell, says UK specialists will soon arrive to help.

"We have seen in earlier disasters where identification has not been done properly, that the wrong bodies go to the wrong families, and that exacerbates grief and is deeply traumatic in itself," she said.

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