Terrified school children screamed and cried as their bus collided with a car, its windscreen shattered and it began to fill with smoke.
Yesterday's 3.45pm crash on State Highway 3 near Hawera killed the female driver of the car and left older students trying to shelter younger children from seeing her dead body in the wreckage.
The woman's passenger, an 8-year-old girl, was airlifted to Wellington Hospital and was last night in a serious but stable condition in the intensive care unit.
Of the 30 students on the bus, a 15-year-old boy with leg injuries and the 63-year-old driver were taken to Hawera Hospital with minor injuries.
Passenger Kelly Clark, 17, told the Herald how students - some as young as 7 - screamed and cried when the south-bound bus suddenly swerved on to the side of the road.
Many had bleeding heads from hitting the seats in front.
"We all thought we must have lost a wheel because we ended up in the gutter," she said. "Then we smelt something really funny like smoke and all the kids in the front started crying and screaming."
The bus was carrying students from Hawera Intermediate School, Hawera High School, St Joseph's School and Tawhiti School to the Kakaramea and Patea areas of southern Taranaki.
Kelly, in Year 12 at Hawera High, said many of the students hurrying to leave the bus saw the woman's body slumped in the car. "As we got off the bus, because we all went in front of the bus, we turned to look out on to the road and we all just saw the lady in her car and then everyone just ran and everyone just started crying, it was quite scary."
She said the older students took the younger ones away from the bus and tried to calm them down. "There were quite a few children bleeding and everyone had really bad heads, sore heads. We had to calm them down first and then I got them all away from the bus so they didn't have to see anything, I just sat them down and comforted the ones that were really terrified."
The children involved in yesterday's crash were expected to be back at school today, Hawera High principal Hans Konlechner told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report.
"There were a number of minor injuries - fortunately no serious injuries amongst our students, although of course our condolences go to the families of those in the car who were hurt.
"We are expecting the kids at school. The owner of the bus company will be driving the bus today and our bus controller teacher will be going out on the route as well, so we'll be looking forward to seeing those kids this morning."
It was important to get the children back to a normal routine as quickly as possible, Mr Konlechner said.
Some of the students who assisted at the crash scene yesterday would be offered guidance counselling this morning, he said.
Mr Konlechner said no problems had arisen from the Weir Brothers bus company prior to yesterday's crash.
"We've worked with this bus company for many years and we've had excellent service from them."
Clarke Weir, of Weir Brothers bus company, told the Herald the driver was "traumatised" by the accident. He said the driver had swerved left to try to avoid the car.
Police said last night they were still investigating the cause of the crash.
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