Every day, Ana Vaipulu makes a short trip from her home, walking along a dirt road to visit the man she loves.

It is a journey she has made for the past year since her husband, Sitiveni, died in a car crash - an accident that also took the life of their eldest son, Koli and three other packhouse workers.

Vaipulu now visits her husband and eldest boy at a small cemetery in the village of Ahau, in Tonga, where a number of other family members also lie.

"I walk there every day. I pick up the rubbish. I talk to them sometimes - sometimes talk and cry.


"I miss them very much. It's still hard.''

The father and son were among five Tongan men killed in a horrific crash near Katikati, in the Bay of Plenty, on the night of August 2 last year.

It had just gone 8pm and the men - who all worked for kiwifruit pack house Aongatete Coolstores - were headed home for the day when the car they were in pulled out in front of a logging truck on State Highway 2.

Sitiveni Vaipulu, 44, had worked at the company for several years. His son had just celebrated his 21st birthday in March.

Sione Teulaka, 21, and Samuela Taukatelata, 28, were brothers-in-law and like the others, had been working hard in order to send money back home to their families in Tonga.

It was Taukatelata's second year at the packhouse and Teulaka's first.

Top left: Samuela Taukatelata, bottom left: Sione Teulaka. Top right: Halani Fine, bottom right: Sitiveni Vaipulu. Middle: Koli Vaipulu. Photo / Supplied
Top left: Samuela Taukatelata, bottom left: Sione Teulaka. Top right: Halani Fine, bottom right: Sitiveni Vaipulu. Middle: Koli Vaipulu. Photo / Supplied

Halani Fine, 28, had only moved to Katikati from Auckland to earn some extra money while he studied at Bible College.

For the past year, as per cultural custom, the families have had to wear black as a sign of mourning. The women have also had to cut their hair.

"It's the Tongan tradition. If the father dies, they must cut their hair, as a sign of respect.

"We wear black for one year and then after that, we take off the black," Vaipulu says.

"But my heart - won't take off the black. I'm still mourning."

For her family, the loss also meant a loss of income; as Sitiveni and Koli were seasonal workers who sent back money to help Ana and the other children, two teenage sons and two daughters, Olive, 16, and 11-year-old Susana.

"It's very hard thinking about the family, something to eat and some other things,'' Ana Vaipulu says.

The family and Aongatete Coolstores decided for Ana's two other sons, 19-year-old Fisiinaua and 17-year-old Tei, to take their father and older brother's place in order to continue to provide much-needed money for their mother and sisters in Tonga.

"I always tell them to respect others and be good all the time.

"That's all I need - for them to help the people and to be careful wherever they go. And work hard like their father and brother."

A bright light

Mele Gordon has not had the heart to let go of her son's things a year after his life was cut short in the accident.

"I still hold on to his Bible, his guitar and his clothes. They're still sitting there from how it was last year, even his towel.

"It makes me feel he's still at home.''

Gordon's son, Halani Fine, is her middle child - a son who had grown up loving to serve his church, his community and his fellow youth.

The former Mahurangi College student had studied architecture before embarking on a journey that would take him around the Pacific as a church missionary.

He was living up to his name, which translates to "bright light'', a Biblical reference his mother had liked.

The night of the accident still runs through her mind vividly, she says.

"It's a nightmare for me. But if I continue to dwell on it, I don't think I can survive another day.

"I have to change my mentality that I have to accept it for me to move on."

Gordon says she did not blame her son, who had been driving at the time, and hoped others did not either.

She also often thought of the driver of the logging truck and said if she ever met her, she would give her a hug and say two words: "I'm sorry.''

"It was unavoidable, that's how I see it.

"It was unfortunate she had to be the one on the road at the time and Halani has contributed to it as well - I don't know, I only can say that he must've not seen the truck coming and just driven right through to it."

Gordon will be joining families at a special memorial service at Aongatete on Wednesday.

She is looking forward to connecting with all the families and workers and the people who have provided support for her.

A memorial

Aongatete's pack house manager Clive Exelby said a special memorial service is to be held on Wednesday, paying tribute to the five men.

Prayers will be said, hymns sung and families will be offered a chance to speak before everyone tucks into a meal.

A memorial garden has also been built on site to remember those lost that fateful night.

"It's important to us as much as it is important to them,'' he said.

Over the past year, Aongatete has been praised for its management of the situation and families have paid special tribute to management staff for their continued support and help for the families involved as well as other workers.

On August 6, Gordon will also remember what would have been a special occasion - Halani's 30th birthday.

Her son's untimely death has inspired her to chase a Masters degree in Language, Culture and Communication - something she started two weeks before the accident.

"I'm doing it in his honour.''

'We hoped for the best, but it was the worst'

One of the first people on the scene was a firefighter who happened to know all the men involved.

Volunteer firefighter Simione Vakasiuola was at the weekly brigade meeting when the alarm went off.

"I looked at the job. I see Aongatete Coolstore's main highway and I know straight away that there's a lot of Islanders working at the pack house.

"We hoped for the best, but it wasn't the best - it was the worst."

Vakasiuola, also a local church minister, was in the second fire brigade vehicle headed to the scene.

Emergency services attend the scene of a fatal crash near Katikati on Dawson Rd off State Highway 2. Photo / George Novak
Emergency services attend the scene of a fatal crash near Katikati on Dawson Rd off State Highway 2. Photo / George Novak

He would soon realise he recognised the mangled car - and each man inside it.

"I walked out to the site and went right up to the car and saw those boys. It wasn't the best thing to look at."

He remembered the driver of the logging truck, who was uninjured but in shock.

"I know she was inside, she was still sitting in the truck."

Vakasiuola said there was a small Tongan community in the Katikati area, because of the seasonal work, and everyone knew each other through church, familial or village links.

Fine, the driver, had been staying with his family at their home in Katikati at the time of the accident. Vakasiuola's wife is also a worker at Aongatete Coolstores.

He often thought of the workers who had just finished their shift that night and sadly witnessed the accident which led to their colleagues' deaths.

"Even though the immediate families were affected, I think the worst was for the workers because they saw the moment of impact.

"I only saw the end of it, but for those who watched and saw the moment, I think they're still suffering too.''

The past year has been difficult, he says, but life goes on.

"I drive past the site every day. And when we see something, the memories come back.

"Nothing will ever replace the boys and I know the families are still suffering. I think everybody is just trying to cope.''