Fatal Christmas Eve bus crash driver pleads not guilty

Scene of the Christmas Eve accident.
Scene of the Christmas Eve accident. Photo credit: Newshub.

A bus driver charged over a crash with killed three people in December has pleaded not guilty.

Talakai Aholelei, 65, was driving a bus with 53 people on board when it crashed through a road barrier about 30km south of Gisborne near State Highway 2, late on Christmas Eve.

The bus was carrying students and teachers from Tonga's Mailefihi Siuilikutapu College Brass Band, who were visiting New Zealand to fundraise for their school in Tonga.

Three people died - 11-year-old Sione Taumololo and 33-year-old Talita Fifita were killed instantly, while Leotisia Malakai, 55, died eight days later.

Several people were hospitalised, including an 18-year-old who lost his legs.

He appeared in the Manukau District Court on Friday facing 27 counts of careless driving causing injury, and three of careless driving causing death. He denied all charges.

Families of the victims and Aholelei's relatives packed the courtroom's public gallery.

His lawyer, Nalesoni Tupou, told Newshub his client had enormous support, including from those injured in the crash.

He will reappear in court next month.

A Givealittle crowdfunding campaign raised more than $42,000 for the families, and another $28,000 was raised by the band in a tribute concert.