Seven dead, two hospitalized in one of New Zealand’s deadliest accidents

Seven people have been killed and two more injured in a horrific accident in New Zealand, which authorities say is one of the deadliest in the country.

A St John Ambulance employee, who was on the scene today in one of the deadliest road accidents in New Zealand history, praised bystanders who quickly intervened to provide first aid before first responders arrived.

“We had some people with medical training who did a really good job in difficult circumstances,” Murray Neal, who serves as area manager for St John Ambulance, told the New Zealand Herald

“These guys did a really good job – a really good job,” he repeated this afternoon, explaining that because of their medical training, they were able to continue to help even after paramedics were on the scene.

Police today soberly described the accident site south of Picton – which left seven people dead, including a baby – as “absolute carnage”.

A light van with nine people in it appears to have crossed the centerline and collided head-on with a refrigerated truck around 7:30 am, police officials said at a news conference outside Blenheim police station this afternoon.

“It’s just absolutely tragic how seven lives are lost in the blink of an eye,” said Tasman District Commander Paul Borrell, offering his condolences to the families of the victims.

†[It’s] a memory for each of us, in the twinkling of an eye seven lives are gone.”

In addition to the seven dead, two others who were in the van were taken to Wellington Hospital – one with critical injuries and the other with serious injuries. The truck driver suffered minor injuries.

Police said they are still working to notify next of kin, with officers in Canterbury assisting with the task as they have more staff and resources there.

The crash occurred on State Highway 1 north of Koromiko as the van was traveling north towards Picton. Police say they are still investigating the cause of the accident and will investigate safety factors along that stretch of road.

“There’s a variety of things that could have happened and I can’t comment on any of those until the investigation is done,” Borrell said.

Marlborough Area Commander Inspector Simon Feltham said police are also seeking help for any first responders coping with what they witnessed.

“One of our employees, it was their third day working at the police academy,” he explained. “It’s a terrible thing to experience.”

The road remained closed at 4:20 p.m. Two hearses were seen leaving the scene.

Wayne Wytenburg, the chief firefighter of Picton Volunteer Fire, agreed that the horrific scene will have lasting effects on first responders.

“Today we experienced a very horrific car accident along with other emergency services,” he said in a Facebook post. “I have no words to describe what our emergency services were dealing with. Our thoughts go out to the families.”

He later posted an update thanking locals for their supportive comments.

“The team is quite resilient and coming to terms with what is there” [happened]†

Neal, the St. John official, said he arrived at the accident site well after the crash today. He described the scene as “pretty well organized” under difficult circumstances. But he also agreed that today’s events will have lasting consequences for all involved.

“I think a lot of the first responders go and they do their job and they do it professionally,” he said. “But people are still people and it does affect them.”

Fortunately, he said, there are systems to help those who need to decompress.

The highway south of Picton will remain closed while emergency services arrive. Police said it will likely reopen later in the afternoon.

Staff from Marlborough Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) and the Serious Crash Unit are also on site.

A St. John spokesman said earlier that three ambulances, two helicopters and an emergency unit were dispatched just after 7:30 a.m.

“We assessed and treated three patients; one with critical injuries and one with serious injuries, both flown to Wellington Hospital and one with minor injuries who were transported by road to Wairau Hospital.”

Crash happened at a ‘little corner’

Trish Rawlings, a resident of Koromiko, said she heard two large booms, followed by sirens, around 7:45 a.m.

She went outside and saw a Big Chill truck lying on its side on State Highway 1, along with police, ambulances and fire trucks.

“A truck had gone through the railing,” she said. “It was between the railings and the railway, in the direction of Blenheim.”

At the time, she was unaware that a second vehicle was involved, but as she approached, she saw what resembled a van with its trunk open, hidden by ambulances.

The highway wasn’t normally busy at this time on a Sunday, she said, and there was no intersection where anyone could have gotten off.

The crash had taken place at a “little corner,” she said.

Rawlings said it was the same spot where local man Gary Kenny had been killed in a collision with a truck two years ago.

Rawlings said later this afternoon that the scale of the tragedy was really starting to sink in.

“I’m actually going for a walk to try and get rid of it,” said Rawlings, who lives near the sprawling crash site.

“Reality kicks in after a while and you think, ‘Oh my God, seven people died not far from where we live’. It’s really awful.”

Other local residents who live across the road also heard the horrific boom from the impact, but weren’t sure what it was. They did not go to the scene and would not comment out of respect for the families of the dead.

Another painstaking and grim investigation is underway this afternoon, with specialist police officers from the serious crash unit trying to find out exactly what happened.

The badly damaged Big Chill truck remains on site, along with the wrecked silver Toyota Hiace minibus.

A wide cordon remains in place and rows of trucks on their way to Picton are backed up to the side of SH1.

Police officers in white overalls also inspect the wreckage of the van.

Another resident who did not hear the crash only noticed that something was going on when a helicopter flew over.

He said the stretch of road wasn’t the problem, but it’s often people getting to or from the ferry who are tired or “rushing to get ahead”.

Michael Roberts, chief executive at Big Chill Distribution, confirmed that one of the company’s trucks was involved in the crash.

He said it was too early for the company to comment, as “the event actually happened in the past few hours” and full details are still unknown.

The death toll takes the toll this year to 184 – 27 more than on the same date last year – making this morning’s crash one of the deadliest in New Zealand history.

Most people died in a 1963 bus crash in the Brynderwyn Hills in Northland. Fifteen of the 36 people on board the bus died after their bus brakes suddenly failed, causing the vehicle to descend a steep rock face.

In 2005, nine people were killed when their tourist bus collided with a logging truck near Morrinsville, while the truck driver escaped serious injury.

Eight people, including two babies under 2 years old, died in 1995 when their house bus lost control over a bridge and plunged 50 meters into a river in Hawke’s Bay.

And in 2018, seven people died in a two-car collision in South Taranaki. Passenger Ani Nohinohi lost her partner and two daughters, while four elderly people in the other vehicle also died.

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has also commented on today’s crash scene.

Land Transport Director Kane Patena expressed the agency’s “deepest condolences” to those involved in the crash and to the wider community.

Motorists trying to get through the area should expect delays of 60 to 90 minutes, he estimated.

“There are diversions on SH6 (Nelson to Blenheim), and for those traveling north via Queen Charlotte Drive from Havelock to Picton. The Queen Charlotte Drive diversion is only suitable for light vehicles.”

This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald and has been republished with permission

Originally published as Seven Dead, Two Hospitalized in One of New Zealand’s Deadliest Accidents Ever