Community devastated by crash that claimed five lives

By NZME, staff reporters

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MEMORY: Tributes laid at the site of the crash. PHOTO/JOHN BORREN
MEMORY: Tributes laid at the site of the crash. PHOTO/JOHN BORREN

Heartbroken and stunned friends and family were yesterday mourning the loss of five men tragically killed in a horrific car crash.

The five were leaving their work at Aongatete Coolstores, near Katikati, when their car collided with a southbound logging truck.

The victims were named as Halani Fine, Koli Vaipulu, Sitiveni Vaipulu, Sione Teulaka, and Samuela Taukatelata.

The crash took a toll on two families with the accident claiming the lives of father and son Koli Vaipulu and Sitiveni Vaipulu, and brothers-in-law Samuela Taukatelata and Sione Teulaka.

Samuela was married to the sister of Sione, according to cousin Manoa Sisfa Tangi.
Church elder Simione Vakasiuola, leader of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, said the loss of the five men had left the Tongan community in shock. Mr Vakasiuola, a volunteer firefighter who also attended the crash, knew all the victims.

One of the dead men, Halani Fine, had lived with him in Katikati while working at the coolstore. Mr Vakasiuola said the tragedy would be especially devastating for the family that lost a father and son.

"If any family is hurting the most it will be the Vaipulu family," he said.

The others in the car had only been in the country for four months, he said.

Sitiveni and Koli had taken up seasonal work to support a family of 15 in Tonga.

Former packhouse workmate Blair Robertson said as well as being the "kindest men you could ever hope to meet", Sitiveni Vaipulu and his son Koli were extremely family oriented.

SCENE: Emergency vehicles on Tuesday night. PHOTO/GEORGE NOVAK
SCENE: Emergency vehicles on Tuesday night. PHOTO/GEORGE NOVAK

The pair spent at least six months a year in the Bay of Plenty to earn enough money for a wife, mother and 13 children living in Tonga.

Mr Robertson said Sitiveni, who was known as Steven around the packhouse, was like a father to many in the workplace. "You wouldn't find a nicer couple of blokes around. They would drop everything to help anyone."

He said both men were rugby fans and would take any opportunity to watch their favourite sport.

"Koli was right into rugby. They loved rugby and they absolutely loved the All Blacks. Any chance they got they would watch rugby."

He said the pair were highly skilled workers able to turn their hand to any job on the floor. After just one season Koli had been promoted to a supervisor role.

Halani Fine was a Bethlehem Tertiary Institute student. His death left staff and his fellow students in the first year counselling class mourning for the loss of a gentle and loving friend.

The institute's counselling programme coordinator Barbara Bulkeley said staff who taught Halani described him as a lovely, friendly and gentle person who showed great potential as a counsellor. He was in his first year of training towards a Diploma of Counselling and was working at the Coolstores to help fund his studies.

Dr Bulkeley said Halani was moving from church youth leadership to acquire the skills to work with Pacifica youth having difficulties with their life.

"He had a very strong faith. He was very strong that God had called him to the next stage of his life. The campus is feeling very sad. "We know he is with the God that he loved and worshipped."

Mr Fine had previously lived in Auckland with his family who migrated from Tonga early in his life.

Tokaikola Church minister Sinafoni Tafuna of Tauranga, who knew some of the crash victims, said Halani was a member of the Wesleyan Church of Tonga. "It is very, very sad. I could not sleep last night."

A total of 80 Tongans came to work in the Western Bay of Plenty this year under the Government's seasonal employment scheme.

The Minister for Pacific Peoples Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga yesterday offered his condolences saying the road tragedy would hit families and the extended Tongan community hard.

"This is a tragedy for everyone concerned. My prayers and sympathies are with the families and friends of these five men and we offer any support we can at this difficult time."

Mr Lotu-Iiga said four of the dead were in the country as part of the Recognised Seasonal Workers programme.

Mr Tafuna said most had gone home, with the crash victims among the few who had stayed on in packhouses and for kiwifruit pruning.

¦The memorial service is at Katikati Christian Centre at 7.30pm tonight.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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