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Christchurch time capsules found in rubble

As New Zealanders observed two minutes' silence in memory of those killed in last week's Christchurch earthquake, rescue workers made a remarkable discovery among the rubble: two time capsules from up to 144 years ago.

A metal cylinder and a bottle containing rolled-up parchment were found beneath the plinth of a statue of Christchurch's Irish founder, John Robert Godley, which toppled during the magnitude 6.3 quake.

The city's Mayor, Bob Parker, said the parchment appeared to bear a message expressing the vision of Godley and his contemporaries for the city.

With the final death toll expected to reach about 240, and one-third of Christchurch's buildings facing demolition, Mr Parker described the discovery of the capsules in the main square, near the cathedral, as "a miracle". He said: "It seems almost providential that they have come to light now, to provide the inspiration we need in this most difficult time."

The bottle and cylinder were unearthed shortly before the nation halted at 12.51pm, exactly a week after the quake struck. Throughout the country, flags were lowered to half-mast, muffled church bells pealed and groups of people gathered outside to bow their heads.

In Christchurch itself, jackhammers fell quiet and hundreds of rescue workers paused, turning their dusty faces to the ground or the sky. Traffic stopped, and friends and neighbours embraced. Mike Cochrane got out of his car at one of the city's busiest intersections and observed the two minutes' silence under a tree. "It's my home, and it hurts so much to see it this way," he said.

In the capital, Wellington, which yesterday experienced its own minor earthquake, a traditional Maori lament rang out over the parliament building.

In central Christchurch, the Prime Minister, John Key – who had urged New Zealanders to join together for people "enduring tragedy beyond what most of us can imagine" – led a tribute in front of a collection of bricks from the worst-hit sites, crossed with ferns, the national emblem.

With hopes of finding any more survivors having evaporated, efforts are now focused on retrieving the dead. By last night 155 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage of New Zealand's second-worst natural disaster, after an earthquake that killed 256 people in Napier in 1931.

But even as Christchurch residents grieved, they were asking why so many had died, particularly in the worst-affected Canterbury Television (CTV) and Pyne Gould Guinness buildings.

Mr Key, who has ordered a commission of inquiry, said there were legitimate questions about why office blocks had collapsed in a place with supposedly quake-proof building standards, and six months after a previous big tremor.

"We need to get answers about why those buildings failed, if there was something unique about them," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation television.

Mr Key noted that both blocks were built before substantial changes were made to the New Zealand building code in 1976.

The owners of the CTV building – where scores of English-language students died – said a detailed structural engineering report commissioned after September's quake had found only superficial damage.

The time capsules – believed to have been buried either in 1867, when the statue was put up, or in 1933, when it was returned to its original site after being removed in 1918 – are being examined before being opened in a humidity-controlled environment. Two words – "by" and "erected" – are visible on the document inside the partly smashed bottle.

Noting the timing of the find, exactly a week after the quake, Mr Parker said: "It's a miracle that these guys found this thing this morning under the statue of a man who was the founder of the city.

"I don't know what the words are, but I imagine it will tell us of the hopes and aspirations of the people of this city when it was founded. Is there a better time to have that refreshed?"