Christchurch earthquake death toll rises to 161

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The official death toll from the 6.3-magnitude quake on Feb. 22 rose to 161 on Thursday, police said.

Seven more victims had been identified but no further details were being released until all family members were notified, which could take another one to two days.

Earlier police said progress was made on Wednesday at the Cathedral site, where a huge steel support is in place across the front of the building.

That has allowed crews to begin taking away beams from the top of the bell tower, Superintendent Russell Gibson told a press conference on Thursday.

About 20 people are thought to have been in the Cathedral when the earthquake struck.

Gibson said the wind affected the central city area, with roofing iron flying about, while more masonry fell during aftershocks. Overnight conditions were calm but he understands conditions may deteriorate again later on Thursday.

More than 27,000 people in Christchurch are still without power. The Civil Defense said half these should have power restored by Sunday.

The Civil Defense said building inspectors will have evaluated all the high priority buildings in the eastern suburbs by the end of Saturday.

Land Search and Rescue teams have checked 56,000 houses around the western suburbs and say about 60 percent are still occupied.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the council will release details over the next 24 hours of how it plans to give limited access to the central business district so people can get into some buildings and retrieve undamaged motor vehicles.

National Civil Defense Controller John Hamilton said chemical toilets and portaloos are being distributed to the areas of greatest need.

Christchurch Medical Officer of Health Ramon Pink said rivers, seawater and ponds must be treated as contaminated and fish and shellfish are also at risk of being contaminated. Residents are still urged to boil water, whether it is from mains or tankers.

Limited public transport services were beginning again in Christchurch on Thursday. There is no charge for bus and ferry journeys for the next two weeks.

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