Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | June 27, 2011

Families Flee As Aftershocks Hit New Zealand’s Christchurch

Families flee as shocks hit N. Zealand quake probe

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AFP) – Grieving families of Christchurch earthquake victims were further traumatised on Monday when powerful aftershocks sent them fleeing from an inquest into their loved ones’ deaths.

The families, who had arrived at the coroner’s inquest seeking answers on the collapse of an office block during a deadly 6.3 magnitude quake last February, ended up reliving the horror of the disaster when the tremors hit.

A 5.2-magnitude aftershock rocked the venue at Christchurch’s Riccarton Racecourse at 1:00pm (0100GMT), creating a wall of noise as windows rattled and the ground shook.

Lawyers, relatives and media scrambled for safety, eventually regathering to continuing the inquest only for a second, more powerful jolt to strike about 90 minutes later.

“They’re a terrible reminder,” said Mike Barry, whose sister was killed in February.

Coroner Gordon Matenga eventually postponed the three-day probe until further notice, saying he was concerned about the state of mind of the families.

Matenga had intended to examine the destruction of the Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which collapsed in the February 22 quake claiming more than 100 lives, including at least 65 foreign students, mostly from China and Japan.

The structure’s failure accounted for more than half the 181 fatalities in New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake for 80 years, raising questions about why the country’s stringent building codes failed to prevent the carnage.

“The families are very anxious to know how and why their loved ones died,” Marcus Elliott, a lawyer representing some of the relatives, said when the hearing began.

Built in the 1980s, the six-storey building housed the King’s Education language school, where foreign students were studying English.

The building’s disintegration and a subsequent inferno were so destructive that forensic specialists had to use DNA testing to identify the remains of many victims.

Since the quake, the CTV building collapse has come to symbolise an event that Prime Minister John Key described as “New Zealand’s darkest day”.

“It was a place where far too many people have lost their lives,” Key said in the days after the quake.

“The deaths of so many young students from foreign shores was keenly felt in this country. We know that they were entrusted to the people of New Zealand.”

In the quake’s aftermath, New Zealand promised Japan and China it would “vigorously” probe the collapse of the building, which city engineers had declared safe after another 7.0 quake rocked Christchurch last September.

The inquest, part of that response, was being held on the outskirts of Christchurch because the city’s court buildings remain unusable.

In the few hours before the aftershocks interrupted proceedings, Matenga heard evidence about how some of the victims died after being crushed and burned in the collapse.

But said it was up to a separate royal commission, the most powerful inquiry under New Zealand law, to establish what caused the structure to crash to the ground when many other office blocks escaped with relatively minor damage.

Maan Alkaisi, who lost his wife in the disaster, said the evidence before the curtailed hearing had made relatives more determined than ever to discover what went wrong in the CTV building.

“If you’ve been in the hearing and you hear how these people have been killed, it’s very hard and you don’t want this to happen again,” he told reporters.

“It’s about how to prevent this happening again.”

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