|Al Jazeera's Tania Page reports from the collapsed downtown towers of New Zealand's quake-shattered Christchurch
Hopes fade of finding more survivors in quake-shattered Christchurch, New Zealand's second biggest city, as the death toll rises to 98 with grave fears for more than 300 missing.
A "miracle" was required to find more survivors amid the wreckage, John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand, said on Thursday, as the focus turned to recovering bodies.
"We are hopeful that we might find survivors but as time passes hopes fade"
"The loss of life could be more substantial that any one of us had ever dreamed of," he said.
Two days after the 6.3-magnitude earthquake flattened buildings in Christchurch, police said there had been no communication with people trapped inside the rubble for 24 hours, reducing the chances of finding survivors.
"We are hopeful that we might find survivors but as time passes hopes fade," superintendent Russell Gibson said.
John Carter, the civil defence minister, said around 2,500 people have been injured, with164 seriously.
However, despite fading hopes of finding any more people alive and fears that a damaged 26-storey hotel tower could collapse and trigger a new disaster, international rescuers intensified their search for survivors.
Teams from quake-prone countries such as Japan and the United States sent in sniffer dogs and lowered microphones into rubble to probe for signs of life on Thursday.
But as the text messages and tapping noises of the hours after the quake diminished, rescuers began to fear the worst and efforts turned to salvaging bodies.
Search teams said their aim remained to rescue those trapped but advised caution.
"It remains a rescue operation. There could be people alive, we don't know," Dave Cliff, the Canterbury province police commander, said.
Teams rushed to a small church after it was believed that a woman's voice had been heard - apparently the first sign in
more than 15 hours that people might still be alive. It turned out to be another false hope.
|Key has declared the quake a national disaster, and analysts estimate its cost at up to $12bn [AFP]
"Right now we do not have any active contact with any person or any indication of signs of life at any location we are working at," Jim Stuart Black, a fire rescue co-ordinator, said.
Hopes continue to fade by the hour, but there was renewed activity at what was feared to be the deadliest single collapse - a six-storey Canterbury Television or CTV building, where up to 120 people, including many missing Japanese students, are feared buried.
Police, however, described the CTV building as not survivable.
"[It] had a number of overseas students in it and my heart goes out to those families that are away knowing that some of their children, family have probably been killed," Dave Lawry, a police operations commander, said.
"The situation is that we don't believe this site is now survivable."
A 70-member disaster relief team from Japan is assisting the rescue effort at the decimated building.
Elsewhere rescue efforts were hampered by a two-block exclusion zone around the city's tallest hotel, the Grand Chancellor, as the 26-storey building teetered precariously, appearing close to collapse.
"It's incredibly dangerous ... If it hits the ground it will create a significant shock wave," Bob Parker, the mayor of Christchurch, said.
|A survivor, Ann Bodkin, was rescued from the ruins of a collapsed building on Wednesday [Reuters]
Al Jazeera's Tania Page, reporting from the city's central business district, said the centre of the city was a "restricted zone".
"One of its tallest buildings - the Grand Chancellor Hotel - is expected to collapse, further hampering rescue efforts in the worst affected area," she said.
Rescue teams had worked through a second night under floodlights, but found only bodies. They still hoped for a
miracle, along with distraught onlookers awaiting news.
"Miracles happen and we're keeping that in the forefront of our minds. That sort of things drives you and pushes you on," rescue official Keith Norton said.
A rare moment of good news was met with applause on Wednesday when a woman wrapped in blankets was dug out from a finance company building, some 24 hours after the quake.
Rescue operations have focused on the central business district, which bore the brunt of the quake on Tuesday afternoon when streets and shops were filled with lunchtime crowds.
However, the clock is ticking for those still trapped, with New Zealand's emergency management chief John Hamilton saying rescuers may have just two or three days to pull out anyone still alive.
More than 100 aftershocks have brought down more debris. Roads have buckled and large pools of water have welled up from broken pipes and sewers.
|The 26-storey Grand Chancellor Hotel tower (centre, back) leans to the right, prompting fears it could collapse
Investment bank, JP Morgan, estimates the quake could cost insurers $12bn, while catastrophe modelling firm AIR
Worldwide Estimates says the insurance industry faces claims of $3.5bn to $8.6bn.
The prime minister on Thursday reshuffled his cabinet to allow a senior minister to focus on the country's worst natural disaster in 80 years - 256 people died in a 1931 tremor.
Officials said fresh teams from Taiwan, Australia and Singapore, were due to join the Japanese and American specialist teams already on the ground, to assist the expanded search of three square km littered with flattened buildings.
More than 1,000 workers were expected to comb though shattered buildings, with the city divided into search grids.
New Zealand sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire", a vast zone of seismic and volcanic activity stretching from Chile on one side to Japan and Indonesia on the other.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies