Since last September's earthquake, the residents of Christchurch have become used to the grim reality of living in a city pummelled by powerful aftershocks on a near weekly basis. But nothing could have prepared them for the destruction wrought by yesterday's quake.
Tamsin Edensor, who was working in her office in the centre of the city, could do little more than hide under her desk as the tremors pulsed through the city. "Glass shattered all around us, everything was falling apart and the ground just kept moving. Everything was shaking so much it was impossible to try and leave the building. For a moment I thought we might be buried."
When the shaking finally stopped the city's inhabitants emerged to find the landscape entirely transformed. Buildings had collapsed in on themselves and rubble was strewn everywhere. "We went past cars that had just sunk into the ground," recalled the 34-year-old, who was eventually forced to abandon her own car and walk back home. "The ground had just swallowed them up."
In a powerful video uploaded to YouTube just moments after the quake, Abdullah Mohd Naw described in breathless tones how he had sprinted to the safety of a park to take cover from falling masonry. "I thought it was just another aftershock but the place just fell apart," he said. "I couldn't even stand, everything wobbled, computers toppled over. Everyone's waiting for new aftershocks."
He had barely finished his sentence when a fresh aftershock shook the city, drowning out the sound of wailing sirens and car alarms with a deep baritone rumble.
Gary Moore was one of 20 people trapped on the 12th floor of an office building in central Christchurch, not far from where the spire of the city's cathedral had collapsed in on itself. A stairwell below the group had caved in and as they awaited rescue, they called the local television networks to tell rescuers where they were. "We watched the cathedral collapse out our window while we were holding on to the walls," Mr Moore said. "Every aftershock sends us rushing under the desks. It's very unnerving but we can see there are other priorities out the window. There has been a lot of damage and I guess people are attending to that before they come and get us," he added.
As the dust settled, callers flooded the telephone networks, desperately trying to discover whether their loved ones had survived one of New Zealand's worst natural disasters. Christopher Stent, who was working from home, was frantically trying to get in contact with his son and wife. "The cell-phones aren't working at all," he said. "My wife went to work at a pre-school this morning and I don't know what has happened to her."
Scores of Britons were also thought to have been caught up in the quake. Richard Jenkins, from Wavertree, Liverpool, said his wife Tracey was visiting Christchurch, which continues to be battered by aftershocks.
"They've had about 32 since 11.48pm last night," he said yesterday. "They are still coming, one after another. It's like a machine gun. The fear factor is that there is another big one just waiting to come."