One of the trucks involved in the horrific crash near Whakatāne that killed three road workers was so badly damaged it was left "opened up like a can of sardines".
Trustpower TECT Tauranga Rescue Helicopter pilot Todd Dunham said the "horrific" scene on State Highway 2 between Pikowai and Matata was one of the worst and "most chaotic" he had seen in his nine years flying for the service.
The three people who died in the crash and two others who were injured were all working for contracting firm Higgins.
A 57-year-old Kawerau man was treated and discharged from Whakatane Hospital and a 46-year-old Tauranga man was treated and discharged from Tauranga Hospital.
It has now also been confirmed that four separate trucks were involved in the crash.
A driver at the scene earlier said a crane had been called to lift a truck because one of the three dead had been trapped underneath it.
The driver was told a rental truck ran into Higgins contractors who were clearing a culvert by the side of the road.
Dunham said three road workers were hit by a "truck coming down the road and now they've lost their lives".
Dunham's helicopter flew one of the truck drivers to Tauranga Hospital - a 46-year-old man - with moderate injuries.
"Going by the looks of the trucks, it is very lucky for him not to have more serious injuries," he said.
He said the truck that appeared to have hit the road workers also struck a Higgins truck, tipping it upside down into a ditch.
The other truck that had been "opened up like a can of sardines" was also in the ditch.
Ross Taylor, the chief executive of Higgins' parent company Fletcher Building, said the two people injured in the accident were also Higgins contractors.
"Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the families and friends of the three people who died and two who were injured in a traffic accident in the Bay of Plenty this afternoon," he said.
"Two of those who died were part of our Higgins business and one was a contractor working for us, while the two injured were contractors.
"This is an absolute tragedy, and we are moving to offer our support to those affected and to our people in the area.
"We are working with police and other authorities to establish the circumstances around this accident."
SH2 remained closed into the evening as the Serious Crash Unit investigated and tow trucks and cranes cleared the damaged vehicles from the road.
Police said an investigation would determine the circumstances surrounding the crash. Police asked for anyone who witnessed the crash to contact Whakatāne Police on (07) 308 5255.
"In particular, we would like to speak to a paraglider who was above the scene of the crash when it occurred," police said.
Motorists travelling along SH2 faced long delays as traffic came to a standstill.
A firefighter at the cordon earlier said the diversions had been mucked up, meaning a lot of people arriving at the road closure were turned around and sent to other routes around the accident.
He said the road would be closed overnight.
A number of disgruntled motorists were seen storming out of cars.
Otamarakau School principal Andrea Dance earlier said the Pikowai bus was able to get to its destination which wasn't as far as the accident, however, its shuttle could not get through.
''We had phoned before the shuttle had left just to advise them there had been an accident but our parents are so proactive some had already phoned us, too. Then we phoned them to say we were going down in the shuttle, as we were told at the beginning as some vehicles might get through sporadically.''
''Now parents are doing it in convoy ... and put the children into cars and going the back way around as the road is closed.''
Dance said he hoped none of the parents or anyone the school community knew had been involved in the crash.
''It's a horrible feeling to know there are fatalities, and they are not far from a school. Now we are trying to keep everybody calm and just making sure our children are safe and contacting all their parents."
''The children have all been set up on some biscuits and they are waiting for their parents so they are good.''
A police spokesperson confirmed the road reopened just before 11pm on Tuesday night.
By sunrise this morning, the scene had been almost entirely cleared and there was little to show for the devastating tragedy apart from some yellow paint where investigators had marked out the locations of the vehicles.
Passing motorists would have little idea they were travelling through a site where three workers had lost their lives.
- Reporting team: Caroline Fleming, Simon Collins, Katee Shanks and Jean Bell