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The man killed in a devastating tornado was hurled into the air by 200km/h winds from an Albany building site and slammed into a concrete carpark, witnesses say.

A student nurse last night described how she tried desperately to save his life.

Sophie Bond stood over the man, believed to be in his 30s, whose head was split open.

"I tried to give him mouth-to-mouth but his lungs were too filled with blood and there was nothing I could do," Miss Bond said.

"Debris, metal and cars were flying through the air - they were just picked up and tossed around like it was nothing and thrown back down."

Death toll, injuries

The death toll from the tornado last night stood at one, down from earlier reports of up to three fatalities.

Fourteen people, including several children, were injured.

The dead man and two of the severely injured victims worked for Fletcher Construction and were at the old PlaceMakers building when the tornado hit.

Across the carpark, a 5-month-old girl and two other children were injured when the car they were in was turned upside down, its windscreen smashed and bonnet ripped off.

Miss Bond tended to the family's injuries.

Nathan Grey, 21, and Adam Ellington, 17, were at Burger Fuel across the road when they heard rolling thunder "like a plane landing".

Mr Grey said two men were working on the roof of the building when the swirling wind tore through.

"The sky split - there was light on one side and clouds on the other, then the wind started spiralling.

"It picked the men up and they were thrown high into the air and were tossed about.

"Then they fell back down and slammed into the carpark."

'There was blood everywhere'

Mr Grey and Mr Ellington ran across the road and saw several people lying among the debris.

"There was blood everywhere," Mr Ellington said. "A group of people huddled around one of the workers ... They were trying to do CPR - but then all sense of emergency stopped and I knew he was dead."

Fletcher chief executive Mark Binns said last night that the dead man - who he would not name as relatives were still being contacted - was working in a side office at the site when the tornado ripped through.

"We're all obviously totally shocked," he said. "This was a pure act of God.

"The tornado has hit the PlaceMakers building and devastated it. When do you expect to go to work in the morning and have something like this? It's a very tough day."

The tornado hit the Fletcher Construction site "smack on"and it had been shocking to see film images of the destruction it caused, he said.

"The site superintendent was outside and his leg was badly gashed by falling metal. A subcontractor working on the site was also badly injured and is in Auckland Hospital."

Placemakers worst hit

The PlaceMakers carpark was the worst-hit area, but the tornado continued its rampage from Albany south.

It was only a matter of minutes, but the terror struck thousands of Aucklanders.

Road closures caused havoc with evening rush-hour traffic, and sirens of emergency vehicles speeding among the damage blared across the city.

Anna Downie watched from a hill as roof after roof was ripped off homes she knew; Richard Turner stood awestruck as the tornado picked up cars, flinging them skyward; Helena Campbell returned to her car to find it crushed and 100m away from where it had been parked.

Suzanne Remkes dropped to the floor crying, with her mother on the phone in one hand; Ashley Abbott grabbed her two children under her arm out from the path of the tornado, tossing them into her bathroom away from glass; three children screamed and cowered in Jane Grayson's car as a howling grey wall thrashed across it.

In Birkenhead, patrons at the local library ran downstairs to take shelter in the basement.

'Everything was flying around'

Hospital staff were expecting more injured people to arrive last night.

Peter Hunt rushed out from the mall and saw the ravaging tornado less than 100m away.

"Everything was flying around - you couldn't get the dimensions of it," he said.

"You didn't know if it was coming towards you or away from you. I wanted to get back inside but they wouldn't let us."

The sights were unbelievable for those looking from office windows.

But for the dozens in their homes as the tornado struck, the sound was like nothing they had ever heard before.

"It was like everything else went silent and all you could hear was the howling - an overwhelming whistling - and I was planted on the ground crying because I didn't know what to do," said Suzanne Remkes, from her Glenfield home.

Anamaria Franco said the minutes stretched on, getting worse and worse.

"The doors were banging, trying to open on their own, and you hear the roof moving above you.

"You realise it's not just a storm - it's something else you don't want to name."

Marley Field works at Sealegs in Albany and was outside looking at the puddles created by the rain when he saw the tornado.

"I saw sheets of something in the sky, I thought it was cardboard.

"But then it started to fall down and it was really hitting the ground hard. Then we realised it was sheets of metal."

Mr Field said debris was being flung from the middle of the tornado.

"You could see it rotating ... and once it moved off you could see the dark cloud in the rotating vortex."

Tree thrown into nearby house

Roseberry Ave resident Ronald Price said a tree with a metre-thick trunk was picked up and thrown into a nearby house.

"It's completely crushed its roof - it went straight through and fell on the house and blocked the driveway."

He said the tornado had caused extensive damage on the street and had knocked out powerlines.

"Trees have been pulled out up and down the street ... I live next to a retirement home, and a lot of its roof tiles are now sitting in my back lawn," he said.

Inspector Barry Smalley, of the police northern Communications Centre, said the first calls about the tornado came about 2.45pm from Albany.

"Its path was from there to the Chelsea Sugar Plant [about 12km to the south, in Birkenhead]," he said. "We kept getting calls from 2.45pm to 3.30pm."

Albany's second killer blow

Yesterday's tornado is the second fatal twister to hit Auckland's North Shore area in 20 years.

In May 1991, a tornado hit Albany, lifting roofing iron from homes and destroying a small church on the south-western side of the suburb. One man died when debris spread by the tornado hit him while he was driving a bulldozer.

Damaging tornadoes seem to hit Auckland every two or three years and other previous incidents have included damage to buildings and power lines.

One of New Zealand's worst tornadoes was at Frankton, Hamilton, in August 1948, when three people were killed.

Seven people were badly injured and damage to property was heavy.

Buildings were lifted from their piles, chimneys were snapped off, houses lost their roofs, trees uprooted and power and telephone lines were left hanging in the streets.

Reports at the time said the air was filled with flying corrugated iron, branches of trees, timber and other debris.

Another three people died in a tornado near Waitara, Taranaki, in 2004.