A former New Zealand professional rugby player has described the horror of watching a car plough into protesters in Virginia.

Kiwi Chris Mahony, who had travelled from Washington DC to be part of a counter protest against white nationalists, spoke to CNN about the "traumatising" event that killed one person and injured 19 others.

Witnesses said the car rammed into a crowd of people who were protesting the rally, which was held by white nationalists who oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee by the city of Charlottesville.

Mahony, an Auckland-born adviser for the World Bank in Washington DC, was walking down the road when he spotted a car that "just sat there".

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"The protesters were coming down 4th St so I thought that's a bit strange, there didn't seem to be any other cars stopping him from going," he told CNN.

Moments later, "We heard a car going incredibly fast down the road and saw it plough into the crowd, and then it reversed back. Some of us ran after the car to take a photo."

White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville. Photo/AP
White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville. Photo/AP

Mahony said he was thinking, "This is clearly like a terrorist incident'."

It wasn't a surprise, Mahoney added, as both sides of the protest "had a high level of antagonism".

"It wasn't necessarily peaceful, you had people in military fatigues with arms walking around so of course that's an in1credibly intimidating environment."

It was a deliberate attack, he felt.

A car has ploughed into a crowd of protesters in the US city of Charlottesville, during racial protests that have turned violent

"It's a little bit traumatising of course to witness these people go flying and later the carnage of everybody lying around."

Mahony, who played rugby for Auckland in the Air New Zealand Cup and for Oxford University, said he sprinted after the car to take photos to identify it and also alert police.

One person died and 19 others were injured when the car ploughed through crowds at an already violent protest between the white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville.

University of Virginia Medical Center spokeswoman Angela Taylor confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

The mayor of Charlottesville tweeted he was "heartbroken" to announce that a "life has been lost".

US President Donald Trump asked Americans to rise above hatred and bigotry to silence violent protests.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides," Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf course. "We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and true affection for each other."

Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said counter-protesters were marching when "suddenly there was just this tire screeching sound." A silver sedan smashed into another car, then backed up, plowing through "a sea of people."

People scattered, running for safety in different directions, he said.

It happened about two hours after violent clashes broke out between white nationalists, who descended on the town to rally against the city's plans to remove the Lee statue.

Some people were pinned between the car that rammed the crowd and other cars it struck, according to the witness. It remains unclear if the driver of the car has been apprehended.

Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. At least eight were injured and one arrested in connection to the earlier violence.