As the dust was settling, it was becoming clear how good fortune had touched many.
It was also apparent the damage caused by the 7.5 magnitude quake was extensive and would take months, if not years, to repair.
Prime Minister John Key expressed astonishment as he flew in a military helicopter above incredible landslides covering large swathes of coastal State Highway 1 near Kaikoura.
"It's lucky it was midnight," said Key in the Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90, looking at rockfall on the Kaikoura coast.
"It's just utter devastation."
As Key watched dust billowed down the hillside below - an aftershock.
"Not something you see every day," says Key.
"Better to be above it than below it. You've got to believe it is the billions of dollars to resolve these issues."
At 12.02am the roads were largely empty when the quake struck about 20km south-east of Hanmer Springs and about 16km deep.
Explore our interactive: All the quakes above magnitude of 2 in the last 48 hours
Truck driver Dennis Dunn was missing for hours today, with fears heightening among friends and family.
Last spotted 30km south of Kaikoura before the quake struck, he was out of contact until mid-afternoon when found trapped between two large landslides on the coast.
Dunn, who is married with two children, had been waiting anxiously as it appeared he might have fallen victim to one of the many slides.
When he emerged, boss Shane Pearson said getting the call from his employee was "better than winning lotto".
"He was right in the middle of it... he was hysterical, he said he was right amongst it."
Kaikoura was counting blessings and the cost - Louis Edgar is believed to be one of two fatalities from the quake. He is believed to have died in the collapse of Elm Homestead, where he lived with wife, Pam.
The blessing came in the form of a tsunami which failed to eventuate. When the quake struck, about 1000 tourists would have been asleep in coastal campgrounds and other waterfront accommodation.
During the day, many of those same tourists would have been seeking the town's easy access to sea life, watching whales and swimming with seals. In the aftermath, the sea was an uncertain, rolling mess with fears a tsunami would sweep the coast.
Those tourists will get to sea - but now it will be on the transport ship Canterbury. The ship is heading for the town and - with air force helicopters and smaller military planes in Blenheim - will be used to get tourists out of the quake-hit area.
Most of those caught up in the drama of today woke to it. There were no workers on the catwalks built around the towering steel tanks in Marlborough's wineries, no tourists at sea, few motorists on roads.
Many of those roads remained shut and the Transport Agency says it could be days till some key routes are cleared and reopened.
Rail services are also on hold while damage to the network is assessed.
And as frayed nerves began to settle, the country was rocked by a cluster of shark aftershocks tonight, the largest a 5.9.
It was a reminder of the land we live in and the power of mother nature.
The day after the 7.5 quake brought an understanding of the scale of the disaster but not an end to the drama.
In Wellington, where workers were told to stay away from the central city, an assessment of damage was pushed along by the approach of a fierce storm.
Heavy rains and gale force winds gusting up to 140km/h are forecast for later this evening. There is concern over whether it might dislodge unstable parts of buildings damaged in the quake, and whether debris from the shake will be blown around the city.
Even as Civil Defence urged residents to get to higher ground immediately, it emerged there was a group of kayakers and a group of rafters on the Clarence River.
As emergency workers began evacuating residents endangered by the potential wash of water after a huge blockage breached, a search began for those who had set out on the river for the day.
And then, when the rafting group was found there was the troubling discovery of empty kayaks and piles of gear abandoned at the river's edge. It emerged that the group had left the river for higher ground.
At the clifftop home of Cheviot GP, Dr Anthea Prentice and daughter Tessa were picking through its cracked and twisted remains. It teetered above the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
"This was a beautiful home ... until about midnight," said Tessa.
That was when she tossed from bed thinking it was the "end of the world".
With her parents Dr Anthea and Snip Prentice she sought shelter, sobbing as the violence of the quake rolled on and on.
It hit 16km deep and about 20km south-east of Hanmer Springs. The 7.5 magnitude quake was felt across the country - a greater magnitude than either of those which did so much damage to Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.
But the duration of the quake is what stayed with most. It went on and on.
"It was like someone picked up the house and started shaking us," said Prentice.
The three escaped the house for the lawn and as they fled, the cliff top home succumbed to the constant shaking to become a ruin.
The signs are familiar in New Zealand now - a collapsed chimney, a roof pulled apart to expose the inside to the elements.
Police suggested they should go - what little was left was not worth the risk in searching for it.