Two siblings have told how they could think only of each other as blood and carnage surrounded them after a logging truck slammed into their school bus.
Sixteen-year-old Sasha Smith and her brother Anaru, 12, were among nine children recovering in four hospitals yesterday after the crash in rural Bay of Plenty on Monday afternoon which injured more than 30 passengers - including the bus driver's 8-year-old granddaughter.
The siblings were sitting next to each other when the unladen truck smashed into the back of the bus as it was pulling over on the side of a road in rural Ruatoki, south of Whakatane, about 3.30pm.
The impact threw Sasha into the seat in front of her, knocking her unconscious and leaving her with chest injuries.
Anaru was left dangling halfway out the window with his legs pinned under a seat.
"I was scared ... I thought I was going to die," Anaru told the Herald from his bed at Tauranga Hospital last night.
"I was sitting there next to [Sasha] and I just got knocked out. I was hanging out the window with my legs inside and under the seat. Then I saw my sister yelling for me.
"I saw bleeding faces and they were all yelling and looking for their sisters and brothers."
Sasha, who lay recovering surrounded by friends and family nearly 100km away in Whakatane Hospital, said she was dropping in and out of consciousness, but her little brother was her first worry.
"I was in and out ... I could hear voices, but all I could see was black, just black. But I could remember what happened when I saw [Anaru]."
Sasha was the last passenger to be taken from the bus and, because she could not move, lay inside the wreckage for an hour before being taken to hospital in an ambulance.
Yesterday, she was still a bit sore and expected to stay in hospital for at least three weeks.
Anaru was fitted with a cast after having surgery to his leg.
The siblings said they were looking forward to reuniting next week.
The tight-knit community was still coming to terms with the episode yesterday and even Jody Rua - the 15-year-old passenger being celebrated as a hero after he swung into action straight after being knocked from one end of the bus to the other - said he suffered during the lunch break at Trident High School yesterday.
"People kept on reminding me of what happened and ... I started to get a bit shaky," said Jody, who was about to get off the bus when the crash happened. "The gruesome injuries ... they kept popping into my head."
Most passengers were young children from the nearby Taneatua School, while others were older children from Trident and Whakatane High Schools.
The most seriously injured was 8-year-old Te Iwa Tihi, the granddaughter of bus driver Te Peiti Tihi. She was last night in a critical but stable condition in intensive care at Starship hospital.
Mr Tihi, who was uninjured, travelled to Auckland yesterday to be with her.
Tuhoe leader Tame Iti, one of the first people on the scene, said he worked to keep Te Iwa from dropping out of consciousness.
"I think she'll be all right but she wasn't very good yesterday - she was just on and off. I kept saying, 'keep your eyes open, keep talking, move your hands'."
Mr Iti, who is trained in first aid, described the scene as chaos when he arrived.
"There were kids crying, holding their heads and shocked. I checked some of their pulses and some of them had concussions."
Staff numbers at the Whakatane Hospital emergency department swelled from seven to more than 60 as radiographers, surgeons, doctors and nurses turned up for duty after the accident.
The Matariki Early Childhood Centre, near the crash site, was closed yesterday as staff who raced to the scene supported each other.
"Obviously this has been traumatic for Matariki, our tamariki, whanau and our community," centre manager Ata Rua said. "We are all just looking after each other."
Last night, one 6-year-old girl was recovering in Rotorua Hospital, four were in Whakatane Hospital and four others - including the 41-year-old truck driver - were in TaurangaHospital.
All were reported to be in a comfortable and stable condition.
Eastern Bay of Plenty Police area commander Inspector Sandra Venables said an investigation into the crash could take up to a month to complete and police would not speculate on the cause in the meantime.
Witnesses were asked to phone Whakatane police on (07) 308-5255.