Riza Maria watched in horror as a car carrying five of her workmates turned on to a state highway and into a collision with a logging truck.
"It sounded like a bomb," she said.
The 36-year-old was following Halani Fine, Koli Vaipulu, Sitiveni Vaipulu, Sione Teulaka and Samuela Taukatelata out of the carpark at Aongatete Coolstores after their shift finished at 8pm on Tuesday.
"I was about two to three feet [away from them] and then suddenly the accident [happened]. They were turning out of the carpark. I saw the truck coming and then the flash of the lights from them.
"It was like a bomb and the car is like a tin can and crumpled."
She is one of many in the small community who knew the victims well and is now grieving.
Volunteer firefighter Simione Vakasiuola was in disbelief after turning up to the scene to find good friend Fine was among the victims.
"I can't explain it to you, you want to see that he is alive but he is dead."
Yesterday, Maria was back at the coolstores with others, paying tribute to the men while a cleansing took place alongside Tongan singing.
"There were lots of tears and emotion. Some family members were there but it was mostly friends."
Coolstores managing director Allan Dawson said the loss of the five men, particularly at the same time, had a devastating impact on a huge number of people. "With five people killed and so many families and their friends affected, it has had a huge ripple effect right through our whole organisation."
"Steven [Sitiveni] has been coming to us for eight years, and was working in a supervisor's role. The other workers had worked for us for different periods of time.
"They were such lovely people, just so willing and helpful and actually quite skilled as well. We will be stuffed without them ... You couldn't ask for better people to work for you."
Dawson said the company had been flooded with offers of support, not just for the men's families but for staff and the Tongan community.
"We are definitely going to need lots of support going forward as I expect about 20 of our staff will go back with the bodies when they are taken back to Tonga."
Vakasiuola, who also leads the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, said it was "a very, very sad time".
A memorial service is at Katikati Christian Centre at 7.30 tonight. It will involve friends, workers and family coming from Auckland.
Friends rally to support driver
The driver of the logging truck that crashed into a car full of Tongan packhouse workers has been described as in a "very fragile state".
A friend, also a logging truck driver from Bethlehem, said he went to support the driver as soon as he heard about the crash.
She was with police by the time he arrived and he was unable to comfort her, but said she would now be getting a lot of support from family. He said he had no doubt she would be in a very fragile state, but she would get through it with the help of family and friends.
The friend said the industry gathered around its own in times of tragedy. They would be encouraging her into thinking she could not turn back the clock, but should try to be as normal as she could.
He said she was a lovely girl who had been around trucks all her life.
- Staff reporters - Bay of Plenty Times