Their faces told the story of the night before. Tourists, parents and their children, stumbling out from helicopters that swept down from the sky to land in an overgrown rugby field at Cheviot.

They came from Goose Bay, a small settlement and tourist stop south of Kaikoura, where dozens of holidaymakers were evacuated from late on Monday, ending a harrowing day.

The South Island region bore the brunt of a powerful 7.5 magnitude quake that hit at 12.02am, leaving thousands of people stranded after main roads were cut off by landslides.

The flights continued into Monday night, each one dropping another cluster of bedraggled people into the paddock.


Some emerged from the helicopters with tears in their eyes; their faces revealing their emotional exhaustion. Others clutched their children tightly, carrying them away from the roar of the rotors to safety.

All had a story to tell about the terrifying power of the quake that roared through their camping spots at Goose Bay.

"It was hell," Les Heaphy, of Christchurch, said.

"It was heavily shaking and heavy noise, with rocks falling down... it was pretty scary," German tourist Danny Merkel said.

Stephen Gallagher, from Christchurch, said he and children were in the Goose Bay camping ground when the shaking started.

"I thought that was it. The only thing that went through my mind was 'the kids'."

Mr Gallagher said the family escaped to higher ground after the first jolt, but endured a long night of aftershocks and confusion.

With little available information, they could only wait in the dark as the ground heaved and trees cracked, wondering what was next.

"That was probably the scariest part."

All were full of praise for the locals who rallied to help, organising food and clothing and starting a bonfire to keep warm.

It was a story repeated as a steady stream of helicopters turned the Cheviot field into a makeshift airport.

Each machine landed with a roar, disgorging its passengers and piling on boxes of supplies, before blasting back into the air.

And, in the silence that followed, quiet conversations about the extent of the damage were interrupted periodically by aftershocks that rippled across the paddock.

But, amid the emotion of the disaster relief operation, there were moments to cheer.

Not least when a machine piloted by former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw touched down, refuelled and was gone again, after a trademark thumbs up from the man himself.

But equally impressive was the community spirit on show, as members of the public rallied to help those in need.

That included Paul Keung, a Goose Bay resident, who took time off work to round up three utes' worth of supplies - from gas canisters and cookers to bottled water and a mobile generator - to fly north at his own expense.

There helping to load his supplies were two of his farm workers, Samantha Ford (26) and Eugenia Zeiser (31), of Germany.

Miss Ford, whose parents run a motel in Goose Bay, said they had called her at 1am on Monday to tell her what had happened.

They and their guests had been forced to flee to high ground when Monday's quake was followed by a tsunami warning.

"Everyone is pretty shaken up. The earthquake was so bad the furniture and stuff fell on them in their bedroom."

Miss Ford's parents had told her to stay out of the area, but minutes later she was aboard a helicopter and gone, off to help out.

Jason Carswell, of Christchurch, also volunteered to help, and flew past scenes of destruction to drop supplies into Goose Bay.

"It was a bit sad seeing these kids sad. The young kids were in shock."

But, despite lingering fears of another tsunami-generating shake, he wanted to do his bit.

"It's always good to help out, and especially to get the kids out."