World champion lifeguard Cory Hutchings said last night's earthquake was one of the scariest moments of his life.
The former Ironman lives on Gisborne's beachfront, just 500 metres from the centre of town.
"It was so scary - especially because I've got four young children" he told nzherald.co.nz.
"I've never seen anything like it. It started off as a smaller earthquake but then it got quite intense and the shaking increased severely.
"Things were falling off shelves and a pot smashed right next to my daughter so she freaked out a bit.
"I'd rather go out in 15 foot surf at Piha than live through that again, and that's saying something."
Hutchings said his main concern was that the quake would trigger a tsunami so he bundled his family into the car and drove up the hill away from the water.
As they drove past the Warehouse, Hutchings said a "stampede" of people was flowing out of it into the main street.
He said later reports indicated that, had a tidal wave eventuated, they would have had just 30 minutes to get away.
"As it is, nothing happened, but I don't think it's a big deal to jump in a car and drive away for the peace of mind."
Hutchings said the main damage appeared to be confined to the CBD but a large pine tree just along the road from his house looked like it was about to fall down and the roads were bright red with pohutukawa blossoms which had been shaken from the trees.
He said he felt especially sorry for the retailers who had lost businesses and stock in the lead-up to Christmas.