Family and friends of people who were in Samoa yesterday gathered at Auckland International Airport this morning to meet passengers arriving on a flight from Apia.

Tui Eves was on a surfing trip in Samoa and described a "surging sea" as people went into panic.

He said he and a group of holidaying New Zealanders and Australians were on the southern coast of Upolu and tried to help as emergency services were overwhelmed after the tsunami struck.

"There was overwhelming destruction and it just came so quick," said Mr Eves, who added he had been reluctant to come back to New Zealand because the people of Samoa were in need.

"Where once there was a bar that we were sitting in, a hotel, nothing is left... There's debris in the water, people are in panic. People are in chaos," he said.

Patrick McBride was also on a surfing holiday. He described seeing a whole reef exposed before four big waves rolled in.

"The fales we were staying in were completely gone, ripped up at the roots... Four-tonne boats were sitting in the palm trees," he said.

Mr McBride said people continued to feel uneasy long after the waves crashed ashore: "You were always keeping an eye on the water to make sure nothing else was coming in."

He said locals began collecting fish on the land as because their other supplies had all been washed away.

"It was gruesome."

Peina Fagale Tapelu was injured when the tsunami hit and arrived in Auckland with her arm in a sling.

"Heaps of family died - five or six," she told nzherald.co.nz, "a lot of kids lost."

Matamuli Nuualiitia described seeing people running from the water as a three-metre wave approached.

Mr Nuualiitia, from the village of Falefa, said a nearby river absorbed much of the tsunami but the wave was very sudden and not many people had time to get away.