It was a highly emotional scene and Patea people are struggling to still work out how it happened.
The collision between a milk tanker and a car in the town yesterday afternoon left three people dead and two injured, including the tanker driver.
Patea fire chief Grant Hurley said it was an "absolutely horrifying" sight.
"I have never seen anything like it.
"There was huge black smoke, massive flames and a terrible smell".
He said the noise of "machinery cracking and exploding was terrible".
An Egmont Street resident was walking home and sat down with the tanker driver, a man from Stratford.
She didn't see the accident but heard an explosion about 4.15. The tanker was on fire but the car was on the other side of the road and not visible, she said.
"He was in huge shock. And he didn't have a phone and he just wanted to contact Fonterra, his boss".
She said the driver looked dazed and confused, but not injured.
An ambulance driver who worked at the scene said initially they were blocked by the number of people around.
"They were standing in the middle of the road and we couldn't get through."
Police have yet to release the names of the three people who died.
Man hopped out of car just before it was hit
Earlier, it was revealed man had exited a car to close the gate to a Patea home after being dropped off when the vehicle he was in was hit by a milk tanker and caught fire, killing his partner and two others inside.
He tried in vain to save his partner but couldn't get to her through the flames, a neighbour who wished to remain anonymous told Fairfax.
The neighbour said she and another woman comforted the young man, who seemed to be in a state of shock, at the scene of the accident.
He and his partner had just moved back to Patea, she said.
The accident happened yesterday afternoon around 4.15 between the car, which was believed to have been backing out of an Egmont St driveway, and a Fonterra milk tanker heading north on Patea's main road.
The force of the crash brought down power lines, cutting power to the street for several hours, and the road was closed until the early hours of this morning.
Two people, including the tanker driver, were taken to Hawera Hospital by ambulance with moderate and minor injuries, a St John spokesperson said yesterday.
Everyone in the car died.
Patea ward councillor Robert Northcott said one of the people who died, an older man who he guessed could be in his 50s or 60s, was a customer at his mechanical repairs shop.
He said the man was "into his music", pleasant and softly spoken.
"[He was a] good valuable member of our community,' he told the Herald.
"It's just tragedy all round really. He was a good family man, he looked after his family."
Mr Northcott said he believed the man's sister was also killed in the accident.
Police spokeswoman Jillian Reid said she would not confirm whether two of those killed were brother and sister as police were still notifying next of kin.
"An investigation into the incident has commenced and this is in its very early stages," she said in a statement.
"Police are appealing to any members of the public who may have any knowledge of the crash or were witnesses to it, to contact their local police station."
Neighbours near the scene yesterday described hearing a crash, followed by an explosion and seeing flames and black smoke "hundreds of feet high".
Ric Taylor lives down the road from the crash and told the Herald he was not surprised to hear all three people in the car had died.
He said he heard the crash while out in his garden and went to see what happened.
"A truck went past my place, one of those trucks that rattle a bit, I was out in the yard and a few minutes later there was tremendous bang. It was a terrible noise, and followed by explosions," he said.
"I saw a ball of flame about 20-feet high ... There was black smoke hundreds of feet high. I just thought, anyone in that would just be beyond recognition."