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Prince William witnesses New Zealand devastation

Prince William witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by last month's earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The royal met rescue workers and saw the quake-battered centre of the city on his first stop on a tour of disaster-stricken areas of New Zealand and Australia.

Clearly shocked and taken aback by the scenes in the country's second-largest city, the Prince still managed to boost morale with rescue workers, laughing and joking with them whilst thanking them for their efforts.

The royal, who works as a helicopter search and rescue pilot himself, told them: "There was a lot of us who work in the military who were gnashing our teeth to come out here."

William is travelling on behalf of the Queen on his second official trip to the country.

The Prince, who is making the trip without fiancee Kate Middleton, is due to attend a memorial service in the city, then will travel to Australia to visit Queensland and Victoria, which were both hit by severe flooding.

The trip comes as St James's Palace announced a charitable gift fund set up by the royal couple for well-wishers who want to send them a wedding present will include New Zealand's Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.

The prince last visited New Zealand in January 2010, on his first official overseas visit on behalf of the Queen.

The royal heard personal stories, meeting national USAR manager Steve Barclay, whose had been told his house is condemned.

Looking clearly sympathetic, William said: "I'm so sorry, that's very sad."

He also met USAR Logistics Manager Shane O'Brien and his seven-year-old twin daughters Lilah and Verity.

Showing his usual ease with the public, including children, he asked the girls: "Who are these lovely young girls? Are you looking after your dad?"

The prince had a clear rapport with search and rescue teams, laughing and joking with them.

He posed for a picture with the USAR workers - when they handed him one of their caps, he joked: "Smells a bit dodge."

USAR Technician Martin Sparrow, 44, from Wellington, said the visit had boosted morale: "It shows that what has happened here is in the eye of the world and people are able to take notice.

"I heard that for the upcoming wedding they have included us in their charities and that shows a side of compassion."

William also met members of the local media, who told their own tales of the day the quake hit.

Keith Lynch, a reporter from The Press newspaper, said: "I wanted to talk to him about The Press building and what happened there," he said. "One person died.

"He asked me how I got out and I said I wasn't there. I said I was around the corner.

"He asked me how the staff got out, I said they ran down the stairs. He said, 'I'm very sorry for your colleagues'."

The prince also met TV One cameraman James Marshall, who described how he was caught up in the quake but still had time to grab his camera and start filming.

The Prince joked: "Course you did, you journalists are all the same. You all film first."

On a visit to the city fire station, William met firemen including Paul Rodwell and Terry Gyde who told the royal how they saved a Japanese student from the King's Education Language School in the city's CTV building.

Mr Gyde, 50, from Christchurch, said: "She was trapped by her foot and it took us about an hour, hour-and-a-half to get her out.

"It got to the point where the doctor came inside with us and we were going to amputate her foot.

"We went through the process of preparing her and we gave it one last go and managed to free her.

"He was pretty awe-inspired I think, it was quite surreal to be there and for anyone listening to it it becomes a bit overwhelming at times."

He added: "We are from the Commonwealth and Commonwealth countries always stick together.

"We look up to royalty and to have the future King of England come here and recognise us for some of the things we did is quite gratifying."

William was presented with a cap, as well as a wooden plaque which read: "Presented by Transalpine Fire Region to HRH Prince William. March 17, 2011. New Zealand Fire Service."

He also signed a helmet at the station, writing: "City station, good luck, William".

After Christchurch, William travelled to Greymouth to meet families of the 29 victims of the Pike River mine disaster.

His visit was delayed due to bad weather, but the royal met the families and Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn.

He will return to Christchurch tomorrow for a memorial service in the city.