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Infant boy the first NZ quake victim laid to rest

February 27, 2011 6:30:13 PM PST
A 5-month-old boy was laid to rest Monday at the first funeral for the victims of New Zealand's devastating earthquake, as the confirmed death toll rose to 148 and the government considered a nationwide levy to help pay for reconstruction.

Dozens of family and friends gathered at a small chapel in the stricken city of Christchurch for Baxtor Gowland, who was sleeping peacefully at home when he was struck by masonry shaken loose by the magnitude 6.3 quake last Tuesday. He died in a hospital, the family said in a statement read to The Associated Press by the child's great-uncle, Peter Croft.

Inside the chapel, a slideshow of the smiling infant's photographs flashed on a screen, as Sarah McLachlan's song "Angel" echoed throughout the room.

"We have all been thankful of the support and good wishes expressed from New Zealand and around the world," Croft said, his voice shaking with emotion as he read the statement. "However, we would like to think that today is for family and friends so that we can farewell Baxtor with peace and dignity."

Authorities have named just eight victims of last week's disaster - Gowland and another infant among them.

Superintendent David Cliff said Monday that the death toll had reached 148, based on the number of bodies recovered from the rubble. Officials say the task of identifying the dead is slow and difficult, and that unidentified bodies are included on a list of people considered missing, which currently numbers around 200.

Cliff said "grave fears" are held for about 50 of those counted as missing, signaling the final death toll could be around 200.

The multinational team of more than 600 rescuers scrabbling through wrecked buildings in the decimated central area of the city last pulled a survivor from the ruins at mid-afternoon Wednesday, making it six days without finding anyone alive.

Police have said up to 120 people may have been killed in the downtown CTV building, where dozens of foreign students, mostly Japanese and Chinese, from an international language school were believed trapped. And up to 22 people may be buried in rubble at Christchurch Cathedral, most of them believed to be tourists climbing the bell tower for its panoramic views of the southern New Zealand city.

Prime Minister John Key was meeting with his Cabinet on Monday to discuss an aid package for an estimated 50,000 people who will be out of work for months due to the closure of downtown.

Key said measures being considered include an extra levy on all householders under New Zealand's compulsory quake insurance system to raise the estimated $4 billion needed to cover an insurance shortfall.

The package, to be announced later Monday, would also likely include wage subsidies and cash grants to Christchurch residents to ensure businesses have cash flow and can continue to operate.

Engineers and planners say the city's decimated central area may be completely unusable for months to come and that at least a third of the buildings must be razed and rebuilt. The government has said that virtually all services conducted in the downtown area will have to operate from elsewhere during the rebuilding period.

Officials estimated that one in three of the central business district's buildings were severely damaged in the quake and will have to be demolished.

"It's quite clear that a lot of buildings are going to have to come out of the CBD, so where a building is condemned it will need to be taken down," Key told TV One on Monday.

He said he expected much higher building code standards for new buildings so they will be able to withstand very strong earthquakes.


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