Among the bricks and shattered glass, we feared the worst.

It appeared as if a hand grenade had been tossed inside the stylish colonial cottage.

Windows blasted out, three chimneys down, bricks piled onto beds. A child's high chair, splayed books, the reek of booze from splintered bottles.

In the pounding silence, I kept expecting to see a dusty foot or arm poking out from the rubble.

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"Police! Hello. Hello!" the officers shouted as they searched room to room.

I went back to the 4WD patrol car. And waited.

"Anybody?" I asked when they returned.

No. We drove to the next farmhouse. Maybe the inhabitants fled, I wondered.

The neighbour said they had gone away for the long weekend.

"Just as well," one officer sighed.

I felt sick.

We moved through rural Hurunui, in the high North Canterbury country, in the dazzling dawn.

The farmers were out, checking on each other, lending generators, fuel, water, beds, ears, jokes. Everyone was accounted for, they thought. We're okay.

Some houses were done for.

The clifftop home of Cheviot GP Dr Anthea Prentice was cracked and twisted.

They picked through the remnants of family heirlooms, teetering above the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Police suggested they should go.

"This was a beautiful home ... until about midnight," daughter Tessa said.

We moved on. Helicopters hummed. Dolphins arched near the shore, oblivious to the carnage on land.

A desperate husband tried beating a police roadblock to drive north to Kaikoura, and find his wife who he'd not heard from.

Patient policemen said it was no use.

The roads were sheared, torn, whipped, blocked. Towns, single houses marooned. Rocks, trees, and clay clumps washed tarmacadam and railway steel asunder.

It would be days, weeks even.

Go home and wait by the phone, the husband was told. She will call. She will be okay.

Eventually, he turned around. But we all thought he'd try sneaking back. Despite knowing his folly.

The quakes. They kept coming back too. Rolling on all day, playing their own tune.