• Five people dead in crash on State Highway 2 near Katikati
• Victims all from Tonga and include a father and son
• All worked at the Aongatete Coolstores
• Road now reopened to traffic
Five coolstore workers killed in a horror crash between a car and truck near Katikati are being remembered as "fine young men".
The victims have been named as Halani Fine, Koli Vaipulu, Sitiveni Vaipulu, Sione Teulaka, and Samuela Taukatelata. They died when their car collided with a truck on State Highway 2 last night.
• READ MORE: Tears and tributes for lost men
The crash also took a toll on two families with the accident claiming the lives of father and son Koli Vaipulu and Sitiveni Vaipulu, and brothers-in-law Samuela Taukatelata and Sione Teulaka.
Samuela Taukatelata was married to the sister of Sione Teulaka, according to cousin Manoa Sisfa Tangi.
Church elder Simione Vakasiuola, leader of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, said the loss of the five men had left the Tongan community in shock.
Vakasiuola, a volunteer firefighter who also attended the crash, knew all the victims. One of the dead men, Halani Fine, had lived with him in Katikati while working at the coolstore. Vakasiuola said the tragedy would be especially devastating for the family that lost a father and son.
"If any family is hurting the most it will be the Vaipulu family," he said.
He made a difficult call to one of the crash victim's family who lived in Auckland last night.
He would be talking with other families based in Tonga later today.
"There's a lot of support and prayers for those who have passed away," said Vakasiuola.
The others in the car had only been in the country for four months.
The victims, including a father and son, were all workers at Aongatete Coolstores and had just finished their shift when the car they were in pulled out of a side road. They were hit by a southbound logging truck.
The truck driver was shaken but uninjured.
The Minister for Pacific Peoples Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga today offered his condolences saying the road tragedy would hit families and the extended Tongan community hard.
"This is a tragedy for everyone concerned. My prayers and sympathies are with the families and friends of these five men and we offer any support we can at this difficult time."
Mr Lotu-Iiga said four of the dead were in the country as part of the Recognised Seasonal Workers programme.
"They had been here only a few months and were travelling home from work with another Tongan co-worker.
"This tragic accident will hit their families and the whole Tongan community extremely hard."
Dawson Rd resident Kevin Ward, who lived only a few metres from the crash site, was at home with his partner Chona Mangasep, who had just finished a shift at the coolstore, when they heard an "almighty bang".
"I knew straight away it was really bad and rung 111."
He rushed outside to the car and could see three men inside and one underneath.
Someone was in the driver's seat, the passenger seat and a person was in the rear of the car.
One side of the car was completely gone, he said. It appeared the driver's side of the car had taken the full force of the impact and looked like it had "concertinaed".
When Ward returned to the car after calling the emergency services, he found a person holding the driver's head.
"I told the person there was no point holding the driver. He was dead."
Other people were arriving and trying to comfort people, but Ward said it was clear there was nothing that could be done.
He said it was a "horrific and emotional scene" as members of the Pacific Islands community began arriving.
As it became clear the victims were workers at the coolstore, Mangasep did not want to go near the scene and stayed at the roadside.
"It looked too bad and I was too upset and scared to go down to the car."
Coolstore managing director Allan Dawson said staff were "reeling" from the crash.
His wife Nell, who is operations manager, said: "They were part of our family. They were all fine young men."
Investigators worked late into the night to determine the cause of the accident. Hearses arrived before midnight to take the bodies away.
The highway was eventually reopened to traffic early this morning.
Allan Dawson told the Herald the workers had just finished work at 8pm and were turning right out of Dawson Rd when the collision happened.
He said other staff who were also finishing work witnessed the crash.
"There is quite a lot of trauma."
Nell Dawson said the father was 44. His son and the three other men were in their 20s.
One of the workers was a team leader.
Allan Dawson said the coolstores would be closed today and workers would be offered counselling.
"We are all just sort of reeling from the whole thing. The support services are gathering around pretty well now and we're getting in touch with the relatives and doing what we can."
Support for the men's families would include helping with the repatriation of the Tonga-based men's bodies, and financial support, he said.
Vakasiuola said two of the victims were part of his congregation and he had broken the news to the Auckland-based mother of one of the men.
"It was the worst news I can give. I'm lost for words."
Vakasiuola said the congregation would pray for the men's families and offer whatever help they could. The church was planning a service for Friday.
The Western Bay District Council Mayor, Ross Paterson, said he could not recall so many lives being taken in a single crash on the road between Tauranga and Katikati. He became aware there had been a crash after two police cars with their lights flashing sped past him as he was driving home.
He said the crash happened on a straight section of SH2. Dawson Rd was a short road that led to a packhouse. Morton Estate Winery is on the other side of the road.
"It is a terrible tragedy. It shows what can happen. You go out in the morning and you don't know if you are coming home."
Acting head of Western Bay road policing Sergeant Wayne Hunter said the driver of the truck-and-trailer unit had made a delivery in Katikati and was heading home.
She and her passenger were uninjured, but had been taken away "pretty quickly" from the scene, and would later undergo formal police interviews, he said.
Western Bay police area commander Inspector Clifford Paxton said: "It's been a very traumatic time for everyone involved.
"It was far too early into the investigation to comment further on the circumstances of the crash," he said.
Paxton said the road presented "significant challenges" for police, and there had been major work done on it, and also a big programme of work was planned for the future.
"It continues to remain challenging and it can be particularly unforgiving given the large volumes of traffic which use it."
Kaumatua Kiritoha Tangitu from Te Puna said police had called him to the crash site and asked him to give a blessing before the bodies were removed.
Tangitu, of Pirirakau hapu and Ngati Ranginui iwi, said: " I just cleared the way at the accident site and offered up some prayers. I'm of Catholic faith but I also used some traditional older prayers to bless the bodies and the scene. It's been very upsetting for everyone."
Western Bay councillor Don Thwaites was also on his way home from Omokoroa when emergency vehicles sped past.
Thwaites, whose brother died in a crash at Te Puna in 1984, was dismayed by the magnitude of the crash.
"Every time you see something like this, it brings it back."
The death of his brother gave him a passion to improve road safety along SH2, with ongoing safety improvements since the days when the road was branded "horror highway".
The real danger these days was from traffic coming out of side roads that intersected with the highway.
"It is the sheer volume of cars coming out of these roads."
The crash happened two nights before a meeting was due to be held at Katikati, called by Western Bay councillor Peter McKay and the Katikati Community Board.
The main item to be discussed was to have been the impact of trucks, particularly logging trucks, on the town.
- BOP/Herald reporters
Bay of Plenty Times and NZ Herald reporters
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