Dead 10 minutes after game

By Andrew Koubaridis, Anna Leask

The force of the head-on collision in which the four South American men died ripped the engine from their car and crushed its roof. Photo / One News
The force of the head-on collision in which the four South American men died ripped the engine from their car and crushed its roof. Photo / One News

Four South American tourists killed in a road crash had impressed the locals less than an hour earlier with their "beautiful" skills as they played their first game of indoor soccer together in a team named the Whakapapa Boys.

They played fiercely and competitively for about 45 minutes, then stayed for another 20 minutes to talk about the game, their favourite teams and players. Then they waved goodbye to the organiser, saying they would be back next week.

Ten minutes later, Agustin Donofrio, 25, German Caceres, 35, Nicholas Ursic, 27, and Pucheta Luciano, 19 - all from Argentina - were dead.

Their friend and teammate Benjamin Blake, 25, from Chile, was last night in a serious but stable condition in Waikato Hospital.

The Argentinians were killed when they pulled out within 50m of a bend to pass a truck on State Highway 4 - and drove into another truck coming in the opposite direction.

The five men earlier arrived at the Ruapehu College gym hoping to play their first game in a team named after the skifield they were working at.

The president of the league and the Ruapehu Indoor Soccer Association, Intaz Feroz, said he initially turned the men down because their team was not registered.

"They were really desperate to play, but I told them to come back next week," he told the Herald last night.

"But they just wanted to play."

So Mr Feroz gathered players, and the Whakapapa Boys got their game.

"They played beautiful soccer. We ended up playing them for about 45 minutes. We usually play for 15 minutes each way but we played for twice the time with them.

"They were so happy. They were brilliant. It was a beautiful game. At the end, we shook hands and then stood and talked for about 20 minutes.

"We talked about our favourite players and teams. I was the last person to see them before they left. We waved and I said, 'We'll see you next week'. They said, 'Okay'."

One of the men gave Mr Feroz his contact details and asked him to text the details of next week's games.

"I still have the piece of paper with me. I was so sad when I found out it was them ... I couldn't stop the tears. I can still see them playing. When I close my eyes I can't stop seeing their faces," he said.

The crash happened between Ohakune and National Park in the central North Island, about 10.30pm.

The truck driver could not stop, and later said he saw only headlights as his truck went straight over the tourists' car. The impact ripped the engine from the chassis and crushed its roof.

The first police on the scene believed there were only two victims - but then discovered two more bodies trapped underneath the car.

Mr Blake was thrown free and was said to be conscious as he was flown to hospital. Co-workers and friends were last night at his bedside while embassy officials tried to contact relatives.

Inspector Steve Mastrovich said the accident was a grim scene and probably the worst he'd ever seen.

"It was one of those where we arrived and thought, 'This is what we've got', and then to find someone else ... It's not pleasant at all."

The location of the crash was not a good place to pass - "The driver has got it wrong" - but Mr Mastrovich did not know what more could be done to prevent such accidents.

"In daylight you would see that straight and you would think it's not quite long enough to pass."

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts general manager Dave Mazey said the deaths were being felt by all those who worked with the men on the mountain.

"They've been around for about a month, [arriving] just before the start of the season."

They were friends before they arrived in New Zealand and he believed they were like many others from South America, who heard via word of mouth about the skifield lifestyle.

"We have about 20 or 30 South Americans at Whakapapa.

"They are a strong contingent ... They tend to be like Kiwis who travel overseas; they are very close knit," Mr Mazey said.

"The South Americans are very engaging outgoing people and like all the staff working in the ski area the prime reason they come for is to ski and go boarding on the mountain - that's something everyone shares in a place like this."

A tribute to the men was posted on the Mt Ruapehu, Whakapapa and Turoa ski areas Facebook page last night.

"Agustin 'TinTin' Donofrio, Luciano Pucheta, German 'Chino' Caceres and Nicolas Lallana Ursic - rest in peace, we mourn your sudden passing you are in our hearts and minds," it said.

"Thank you for adding to our lives, you are already sadly missed by your friends, colleagues and extended family at Mt Ruapehu. Ben stay strong - fight hard, we hope to see you soon."

It is the second serious accident involving tourists on New Zealand roads in two months.

On May 12, three American students died in a crash on a central North Island road.

- Additional reporting, APNZ

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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