Five kiwifruit workers killed in Katikati crash

  • 03/08/2016
(Martin Cowan / Newshub.)
(Martin Cowan / Newshub.)

Five Tongan coolstore workers have been killed in a collision with a logging truck in the Bay of Plenty, bringing the New Zealand road toll to seven in just 12 hours.

The crash happened on a dangerous stretch of State Highway 2 south of Katikati, near Tauranga, on Tuesday night.

The five, originally from Tonga, worked in a kiwifruit coolstore at Aongatete.

The truck driver was uninjured, police say.

The incident forced the closure of the highway in both directions between Morton Rd and Thompson's Track on Tuesday night. The road was reopened on Wednesday morning.

The serious crash unit and commercial vehicle investigation unit have been at the scene.

The accident was "a terrible tragedy, because we are a close-knit community in Katikati, and we're a very close-knit community in this packhouse," says packhouse manager Clive Exelby.

"It's a very dangerous piece of road - in our entrance area is particularly dangerous, because of the speed of the traffic on State Highway 2."

The deceased have been named as Koli Vaipulu, Sitiveni Vaipulu, Halani Fine, Sione Teulaka, and Samuela Taukatelata. 

Mr Exelby describes to men as "fun-loving, good-working, great company, and very quality Tongan men who had their country at heart, and their family at heart."

He hopes that if anything comes of the tragedy, the road will be made safer.

"There've been people petitioning government for many many years about the horrors of State Highway 2 between Katikati and Tauranga," he says.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges was already planning to visit Katikati to discuss road safety, before Tuesday night's fatal crash happened.

Western Bay Mayor Ross Paterson says locals were planning to confront the minister about the dangerous stretch of road during a scheduled visit on Thursday.

"Simon Bridges is going to be in Katikati on Thursday night, speaking about roading in the district."

In the Government's 2016 Budget, $85 million was pledged to make safety improvements on State Highway 2 between Waihi and Tauranga.

Police Inspector Clifford Paxton says the road is a notorious crash spot.

"There's been some significant challenges on this stretch of road. There's also been a significant amount of work done in recent times on it, and also a significant amount programmed for the future. It continues to remain a challenge for us. It can be particularly unforgiving with the volumes of traffic."

Kiwifruit coolstore owner Allan Dawson says he'd told the New Zealand Transport Agency to upgrade the spot, including installing lights.

One of the people who called emergency services to the crash says he is traumatised by what he saw.

Local Kevin Ward, whose partner worked with the men at the packhouse, is still coming to grips with the "terrible thing" that happened.

He says his partner had just returned home after working alongside the Tongan packhouse workers, when they heard a "big bang". Mr Ward ran out, and discovered the crash.

"There were three bodies in the car, and one underneath the car," he says. "There was nothing that anyone could really do."

This isn't the first time crashes have occurred in the area either.

"I've lived in this particular area most of my life, and that particular highway, State Highway 2, between Katikati and Tauranga, unfortunately, I've seen a lot of dead people on that road," he says.

The coolstore will be closed on Wednesday and fellow workers have been offered counselling.

"We're all really quite distraught at the moment," Mr Dawson told RNZ.

"I think it's all human error, there's a dip to the right, vehicles sort of suddenly appear out of that dip quite quickly and I guess that's what happened - they were trying to cross the road to turn right."

Most of the men were seasonal workers who worked at the coolstore for six to seven months then went back to Tonga, and Mr Dawson says the company will provide financial support for their families.

"They're just great, friendly people. They were great in the workforce. They were part of the family. We're all shocked."

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