The Waitakere District Court was packed with people and filled by song this afternoon as the Tongan community shared prayers for those effected by the triple-fatal Christmas Eve crash that occurred in 2016.

Some people had flown from Tonga to be present at the sentencing of bus driver Talakai Aholelei.

Tears were shed as those who died in the crash - Sione Taumololo, Talita Fifita, and Leotisia Malakai - were remembered by family and friends.

One survivor spoke of how dramatically his life changed in the wake of the crash.


Tevita Lokotui's left leg was amputated at the knee as a result of the Christmas Eve smash.

He said at first he had been angry about what happened to him but restorative justice had helped.

"I now feel sorry for what the bus driver is going through," he said.

He said he understood there were problems with the bus but that Aholelei should have asked for help.

Outside the courtroom, Sergeant Corey Ubels said he had not seen anything like the incredible display of love and forgiveness that was being shown by the Tongan community during the 21 years he had been with the Serious Crash Unit.

The vast majority of the passengers were students and teachers from a college in Vava'u in Tonga, he said.

"They were not only in another country and a long way from home, a large number of them had serious injuries, they had lost three loved ones, they barely spoke English and most of their personal property was on the bus and they had no food.

"It was an incredible sight to see and hear how everyone came to assist these people in need, providing clothes, bedding, blankets, food as well as fridges to keep the food cold.


"It was a very humbling experience."

Aholelei was sentenced to five and a half months home detention and disqualified from driving for two years.

He also paid $36,000 in reparations.

On December 24 2016, Aholelei was driving people from Tonga's Mailefihi Siu'ilikutapu College brass band to a concert at Gisborne's Wesleyan Methodist Church when it crashed down a steep embankment on State Highway 2.

There were 53 people on board, with dozens injured in the crash.

Judge June Jelas said Aholelei had expressed deep remorse for what had happened.

"If you had the power you would turn back the clock."

During the fatal journey he had missed the Rotorua turnoff on and decided to drive onto Hawke's Bay before heading north towards Wairoa.

They were 20 minutes south of Wairoa when passengers reported that they could smell something like burning rubber, she said.

Aholelei pulled over at a Z Energy station but did not seek assistance from staff members and made the fatal decision to continue driving when he was not familiar with the route.

Judge Jelas said he had determined the brakes were too hot but had no true understanding of the problem and was fortunate police were not pressing more serious charges.

"While you have many talents you are not a mechanic of buses."

Judge Jelas said Aholelei had undertaken an AA driving course after the accident and had offered traditional Tongan gifts at the funerals of the victims.

He was of good character and made "significant contributions to the community", she said.

The bus company, Ritchies Transport Holdings Ltd (Ritchies Coachlines), is also facing charges in relation to the fatal crash.

The charges were laid by WorkSafe at the Waitakere District Court on December 21 last year, just days before the one-year anniversary of the crash.