Tree tragedy: 'The girls enriched our lives'

By Susan Strongman, Sophie Kaiser

Young tourists killed in freak accident returned to grieving families.
Kathrin Schmitt and Julia Mayer, both 19, died in the February 26 tragedy, described as a "horrific freak accident" by emergency services staff.
Kathrin Schmitt and Julia Mayer, both 19, died in the February 26 tragedy, described as a "horrific freak accident" by emergency services staff.

The bodies of two German teens killed when the car they were in was crushed by a giant beech tree in Fiordland have arrived home.

Kathrin Schmitt and Julia Mayer, both 19, died in the February 26 tragedy, described as a "horrific freak accident" by emergency services staff.

The pair arrived in New Zealand on January 12 on six-month work and travel visas.

Kathrin's father, Holger Schmitt, told the Herald on Sunday it was "their dream to travel to New Zealand". Now, he said, "our daughters arrived safely at home".

Julia will be farewelled on Tuesday and his daughter's funeral would be on Wednesday.

"We are glad the transfer to Germany happened in such a professional way and without delays. All people involved in the transfer, we thank from the bottom of our hearts."

Holger Schmitt is the mayor of the town of Rimbach.

His daughter wanted to explore New Zealand after seeing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films.

Her friend Julia was interested in nature photography and wanted to meet New Zealanders and learn about the country's culture.

The pair were heading north on the Te Anau-Milford Highway near Cascade Creek, towards Milford Sound, about 4.30pm on February 26, when a 30m beech tree fell and crushed their car.

Schmitt said he was thankful for the time the girls had here and the friendly people they met. "We thank the rescuers and the people who helped our daughters at the accident scene."

Kathrin shared photos of her travels around New Zealand on social media, including at the Moeraki Boulders, Christchurch's Hagley Park and Waiheke Island.

The two teenagers finished year 13 in June last year at Rimbach's Martin-Luther-Schule, a high school where students choose to major in either music or sport.

Principal Beate Wilhelm told the Herald on Sunday the girls had been students there for eight years.

"Both young women took part in many of our school's projects, they contributed their amiable personalities in musical and social projects. They were active and appreciated members of our students' council and enriched our school life in many different ways."

She said the school community was saddened "by the loss of these two gifted young women".

"We pay our respect, appreciation and loving memories to our former students Julia and Kathrin."

The school had created a condolence book for students and the public to leave comments.

St John Te Anau station manager John Lambeth described the tragedy as a "horrific freak accident" and said the girls' car was entirely obscured by foliage.

The driver died in the vehicle and the passenger died after she was moved to an ambulance.

Medical and fire crews spent more than six hours at the scene.

The response included three helicopters, nine road workers, two police officers, nine medical staff and 12 firefighters.

"A huge amount of resources were put in to try and save the lives of those girls," Lambeth said.

"The families can take some solace from that."

Firefighter Graeme Moffat, Te Anau's station chief, said the crash was one of the worst he had seen in his 30-year career.

The women were driving during what he called a "substantial" thunderstorm.

He said if the car - a Toyota Estima people mover - had been a metre or so in either direction, they would still be alive.

- Herald on Sunday

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