The driver of a van which drifted and rolled four times, killing three American tourists, screamed "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" as the vehicle flipped out of control, an inquest has heard.
Roch Nicholas Jauberty, 21, Austin Perry Brashears, 21, and Daniela Rosanna Lekhno, 20, died at the scene of the crash on State Highway 46 at Rangipo, near Turangi, about 7.15am on May 12 last year.
They were part of a group of Auckland-based Boston University students travelling from Taupo to walk the Tongariro Crossing.
Giving evidence at a Rotorua inquest today, Taupo Constable Tina Mitchell-Ellis read exerpts of a sworn police statement given by the van's driver, Stephen Houseman.
He told police that as the vehicle drifted to the left, he had tried to straighten the steering wheel but the van flipped and rolled four times.
"As we were flipping everyone was screaming but it was more like a rollercoaster scream," Mr Houseman had stated. "I just kept on screaming 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry'.
"I did not know what else to say."
The three students who died were thrown from the people carrier after Mr Houseman over corrected and the van crashed.
A fourth passenger, Margaret (Meg) Theriault, suffered serious injuries.
None of the four were wearing seatbelts. Mr Houseman and the three other passengers were wearing theirs and suffered only minor injuries.
Today's inquest heard those who died in the crash may have lived if they had been wearing seatbelts.
Rotorua coroner Dr Wallace Bain referred to Mr Houseman's sworn statement where he stated he told his passengers he was not leaving Taupo until they all had their seatbelts on. When they stopped at Turangi for petrol, he repeated that.
Constable Mitchell-Ellis said it was Mr Houseman's first time driving in New Zealand and his first time driving a people carrier-type vehicle.
"Although not a contributory factor to the cause of the crash it should be mentioned that had the deceased and the seriously injured passenger been wearing seatbelts they could very well have survived this," she said.
Dr Bain said distraction couldn't be ruled out as a contributing factor, as Mr Houseman was talking to others and singing along with a CD.
Mr Houseman was last year convicted of three charges of careless driving causing death and four charges of driving causing injury, and disqualified from driving for six months.
Dr Bain said he had received a "beautiful" letter from Tom and Julie Brashears, Austin's parents.
It said their son had dreamed of going to New Zealand for years and "loved every minute spent in your beautiful country".
"His death has left a huge hole that is impossible to fill," the letter said. "It has been the biggest blessing in our lives to have Austin as our son and to raise him for 21 years."
They thanked the people of New Zealand for their kindness and compassion.
Dr Bain also referred to a report on the crash by Clive Matthew-Wilson where he spoke about the road and vehicle.
Mr Matthew-Wilson said rumble strips on the side of the road would have alerted Mr Houseman when he began drifting left.
"The lack of rumble strips on roads... is all the more tragic given their relatively low cost of installation," the report stated.
He said the white line on the left of the road was right on the edge of the tar seal - with gravel on the other side. Mr Matthew-Wilson recommended outside lines on this type of road be brought in 150mm.
He also said rental vehicles should be legally required to be fitted with Electronic Stability Control, as studies showed that could reduce the likelihood of vehicles rolling after losing control.
The coroner has reserved his decision.