A 52-year-old motorcyclist is dead and eight people remain in hospital after a tragic day that kept emergency services busy with four serious accidents.
The first crash that critically injured eight people yesterday could have gone unnoticed for days had a man and baby not been thrown out as their van rolled and dropped over a 15-metre cliff on "one of the darkest roads in the North Island", northwest of Napier.
They were noticed by a passing motorist who alerted emergency services at 6.48am, initiating a rescue in which six others were winched from the wreckage by helicopter, as thousands of motorists waited for State Highway 5 to reopen at midday.
Police said they suspected the man and child had been thrown out of the van as it rolled. They had been told by a woman that she stopped when she saw the man and infant on the grass beside the road.
"She said she took the baby off him and he just collapsed," an officer said.
The flattened white Toyota Regius van plummeted from the western side of the road about 2km north of Pan Pac's Ohane block entrance, between Te Haroto and Tarawera, 80km from Napier.
Down the bank, the scene was described as "carnage" with injured people having escaped the van with its "pancaked" roof and shattered windows.
"It would be carnage I'd say with the vehicle rolling and ejecting people and luggage, and belongings - it would be pretty chaotic," said station officer Peter Draper of the Napier fire brigade.
Senior firefighter Shane Cunningham was winched down the bank along with a colleague. Even though he knew the number of patients needing help, it was still startling to see the injured around the wreckage.
A 9-year-old girl had an obvious fracture to her right arm. "There was a young lad who was able to stand and the mother was about three or four metres away from the van."
Mr Cunningham said they were all able to talk. "The father was asking about the condition of the others. We spoke to them to comfort them and keep them alert."
The van's "pancaked" roof and badly damaged front was so bad he couldn't believe there were no fatalities or worse injuries. "It was obviously a complete write-off."
The driver of the van is believed to have fallen asleep at the wheel - with several cans of energy drinks scattered around the carnage. The van appeared to have gone out of control rounding a moderate left downhill bend and the driver over-corrected and hit a kerb, before veering across the road, overturning in the two oncoming lanes and bouncing across a verge and over the cliff.
The Lowe Corporation Rescue Helicopter was joined by helicopters from Taupo and Rotorua in the rescue and helped transport patients to hospital.
All eight were admitted to Hawke's Bay Hospital, where the 6-month old boy, a man aged in the 30s and a 12-year-old girl were under intensive care, and a man and woman both aged in the 30s, and a girl aged 9 were in a high-dependency unit.
The conditions of the baby and man in intensive care were critical, the others serious, and two other men in general wards were said to be stable. A Hawke's Bay Hospital spokeswoman said an emergency trauma room was established to deal with the high casualty rate following the crash.
Five were believed to have flown from Melbourne to Auckland on New Year's Day.
Hawke's Bay rescue pilot Jeremy Bruce said power lines almost immediately above the wreck, along with tall trees surrounding it and a wind made the rescues "quite a challenging job".
He landed on the road on arrival, and waited while paramedics and rescuers, including a four-strong specialist fire service line rescue crew, assessed how to get the injured out of the vehicle.
Having winched four from the site, he flew to hospital two females with suspected spinal injuries, while others continued the rescue.
On the highway, more than 400 vehicles had banked up in three stages on the Napier side of the crash.
Former truck driver Noel Solomon, who travelled the road regularly for five years, said the stretch of road could be "treacherous".
He said the weather could be fine either side of the area, which seemed to have conditions all of its own.
"This often made it one of the darkest roads in the North Island," Mr Solomon said. "Just a slight error either way and you're over the bank."