LYTTELTON, New Zealand - At the epicenter, children screamed in the school playground as the earth rattled and cracked. Elderly residents toppled to the floor in the nursing home. Cliff faces fell, spitting truck-sized boulders across lawns and through houses.
When Tuesday's massive earthquake flattened office towers and killed at least 113 people in Christchurch, the tiny harborside village of Lyttelton, just to the south, found itself straddling the epicenter.
"I thought the devil was coming up out of the earth," said Kevin Fitzgerald, 63, a teacher's aide who yanked a student under a desk and sheltered him as the school rocked menacingly, sending everything crashing to the floor.
"The whole building was just undulating - that noise, that NOISE!" he said yesterday, shaking his head at the memory. "I thought, 'Well, I'm going to die.' "
Two days later, dazed residents of the close-knit village of 3,000 wandered through dusty, brick- and glass-covered streets, pausing when they passed each other to offer hugs, shed a few tears and ask the question on everyone's mind: "How's your house?"
The answer was generally grim. Most homes bore at least some quake-induced scars.
Though there was a report of a man crushed by a boulder, so far there are no confirmed deaths in Lyttelton. By contrast, the death toll in Christchurch, seven miles to the north, could end up making it New Zealand's worst natural disaster.
Police Superintendent David Cliff said the latest count at a special morgue set up to deal with the dead was 113. With 228 people listed as missing, the death toll was expected to rise.
Jean Smith's eyes filled with tears as she recalled the dread she felt Tuesday when the road beneath her car began to tilt. She clutched the steering wheel as the vehicle was thrown back and forth. Her normally five-minute drive home turned into a six-hour journey from hell.
Yesterday, Smith, 64, stood in her shattered living room staring out at the turquoise harbor, a sea-filled crater from an ancient volcanic eruption, now the main deep-water port for the Christchurch region.
"We're going to rebuild, but it's going to take a long time," she said. Outside, another aftershock rattled the earth.