One was a vibrant young wife and mother who lived for her family. The other was just a boy, posing proudly in the uniform - white with blue stripes - that represented the brass band he was travelling with when he died.

Talita "Lita" Moimoi Fifita and Sione Taumalolo came to New Zealand to help raise money for Mailefihi Siu'ilikutapu College.

Taumalolo, believed to be aged 12, was a student at the Tongan college.

The college's brass band had played at Auckland's Aotea Square in the days before Christmas, where they impressed Terry Bowden and his grandchildren.

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Bowden wrote heartbreakingly on the Givealittle page set up to help the families of Fifita and Taumalolo, and 44 others injured when their bus plunged 100m down a bank south of Gisborne late on Christmas Eve, of how enthusiastic and talented the band were.

"They hugged and listened to two of my grandchildren, who sang to them as a response ... they talked about how excited they were to be in New Zealand, and how much they were looking forward to performing in Gisborne for Christmas."

There was so much more to come.

Instead, grieving families were yesterday struggling to come to terms with a devastating loss just hours before Christmas.

Fifita's sister told the New Zealand Herald they were "still trying to get through the loss" and not ready to speak to media.

Others shared their grief on social media, with one writing on Facebook that Fifita, a chaperone on the New Zealand tour, was "a mother to all".

"A lady that never raised her voice, who lived to cater to her family, full of fun and life, and a mother to all, you where [sic] the best aunt I ever had and we are lost big time without you and your kind smile.

"My heart goes out to your husband and baby girl."

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Fifita is believed to have died at the scene of the crash, and her body was found that night.

The heartbreaking discovery of Taumalolo's body was made yesterday morning when police discovered one person was unaccounted for.

Taumalolo's family couldn't immediately be contacted, but his father posted a single image of his son - in his brass band uniform - on his Facebook page.

Another relative wrote of the loss of a "gorgeous boy".

"Rest in eternal love Sione Taumalolo! What a harsh way to start our Christmas."

One wrote that Taumalolo's face "kept appearing to me once I heard a little boy had passed away".

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"I remember your smiley face from our choir practises we had the last past weeks ... such a sad christmas for us, Rest in Gods love and also my cousin Talita moimoi Fifita ... xoxo [sic]."

Reverend Sunia Ha'unga of the Tongan Wesley Methodist Parish in Gisborne said survivors at Gisborne Hospital had told him the bus' brakes failed.

"They said the driver was trying and trying to stop, but the brakes weren't working."

Ha'unga had expected the brass band to arrive at the church at 3pm on Christmas Eve. He waited there until about 5pm when he heard they were lost. "They were heading towards Napier/Hastings ... They were really lost."

Ha'unga said the Tongan driver, from Auckland, was unfamiliar with the area. The Tongan community was rallying to support those involved in the crash, he said.

A special service for the victims was held at the church at 8pm last night.

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- Additional reporting: Morgan Tait, Catherine Gaffaney