A tourist bus that crashed killing five Chinese nationals near Rotorua is believed to have veered onto the wrong side of a wet road before it over-corrected and rolled.

A visit to one of New Zealand's most famous tourist towns took a ghastly twist yesterday for the 27 visitors.

Five were killed, two seriously injured and four moderately injured after the bus rolled on State Highway 5 at Ngatira, 20km northwest of the city, on a stretch of bush-edged road between Waiohotu and Galaxy Rds.

Meanwhile, a survivor has recounted the harrowing moment the bus took a sudden sharp turn seconds before it rolled.

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The injured woman told Chinese-language news website Skykiwi.com said: "The driver turned sharply - almost 360 degrees. At that time, the rain was slippery and the driver then braked.''

Emergency services respond to a bus crash near Rotorua. Video / Ben Fraiser

Injured survivors wrapped in blankets were seen screaming and crying moments after the deadly crash.

Speaking to media last night Inspector Brent Crowe called the crash "an absolute tragedy".

He said the tour bus, which has about 30 seats, was travelling south towards Rotorua when it failed to take a bend shortly after 11am.

It veered onto the wrong side of the road, corrected and flipped on to the driver's side. Crowe believed the driver survived without serious injuries.

The scene of the crash on State Highway 5. Photo / Bishal Basnet
The scene of the crash on State Highway 5. Photo / Bishal Basnet

"This is a very traumatic event for all concerned, it has very far-reaching consequences."

The Rotorua road policing team had had "a terrible year", he said.

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"We've been down this track far too many times."

Survivors were escorted away from the scene. Photo / Ben Fraser
Survivors were escorted away from the scene. Photo / Ben Fraser

An ethnic liaison team, the Red Cross and Victim Support are helping survivors, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Chinese consulate are helping identify the dead and notify next of kin.

"I think that the aroha from the Rotorua community will shine through," Crowe said.

Police speak to media about today’s crash on State Highway 5

Posted by Rotorua Daily Post on Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Witnesses described seeing shattered glass and survivors wrapped in blankets sitting beside the road.

Ten passengers were taken to Rotorua's ambulance base, including a man limping heavily who was helped into a wheelchair.

Five helicopters flew other victims to Waikato and Tauranga hospitals, and ambulances drove the rest to Rotorua Hospital.

Aerial view of the bus crash scene. Photo / Westpac Rescue Helicopter
Aerial view of the bus crash scene. Photo / Westpac Rescue Helicopter

Traffic was backed up for hundreds of metres by midday and drivers were asked to turn back.

Crowe said the serious crash unit was investigating, and the commercial vehicle safety team was likely to be at the scene until the late evening, before the road reopened. A crane was being used to right the bus.

"We've got to do this meticulously, carefully and with respect to those who have lost their lives."

Saint John territory area manager Leisa Tocknell, Inspector Brent Crowe, and Fire and Emergency assistant area commander Hamish Smith speak to media. Photo / Andrew Warner
Saint John territory area manager Leisa Tocknell, Inspector Brent Crowe, and Fire and Emergency assistant area commander Hamish Smith speak to media. Photo / Andrew Warner

It was "way too early" to know if charges would be laid, and a decision on that was "weeks if not months away".

It was not yet clear if seatbelts were fitted or worn by passengers, or if any victims were children.

"A police investigation into the cause of this crash is under way, however we cannot speculate on the contributing factors at this early stage. "

Emergency services at the scene. Photo / Bishal Basnet
Emergency services at the scene. Photo / Bishal Basnet

Crowe said the driving conditions were very unfavourable with "high winds, fog and a lot of rain".

"The road surface was clearly wet and therefore slippery. The road itself historically hasn't caused us too many issues."

About 6mm of rain had fallen in Rotorua by 11am, according to MetService.

First responders came from Taupō, Rotorua, Mamaku and Pūtāruru.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand assistant area commander Hamish Smith said such crashes "are traumatic" for personnel, and he was checking on them.

Witness accounts

Bishnal Basnet was among the first on the scene.

He said the crash site was chaos with people screaming and crying and trying to get off the bus in heavy rain.

Basnet carried a woman in her 50s on his back away from the bus, then stayed at the crash site directing traffic for another hour after emergency services arrived.

Survivors were escorted away from the scene. Photo / Ben Fraser
Survivors were escorted away from the scene. Photo / Ben Fraser

When Amanda Roberts arrived six to eight people were outside the bus, including a couple who "didn't look too good".

She said the wet road had been "quite treacherous" and most people had been driving carefully.

The area road toll

As at September 3 this year, 28 people had lost their lives on Bay of Plenty roads, compared to 22 at the same time last year.

The national road toll stood at 231 on Tuesday night, compared to 257 at the same time last year.

The crash comes just months after eight people died in a head-on crash near Rotorua, on State Highway 1 near Ohakuri Rd, Atiamuri, on April 28.

Saint John territory area manager Leisa Tocknell, Inspector Brent Crowe, and Fire and Emergency assistant area commander Hamish Smith speak to media. Photo / Andrew Warner
Saint John territory area manager Leisa Tocknell, Inspector Brent Crowe, and Fire and Emergency assistant area commander Hamish Smith speak to media. Photo / Andrew Warner

Margaret "Margs" Luke, 35, and David Wiremu Poutawa, 42, were killed in the crash alongside five of their children; Trinity Luke, 13, Chanley Poutawa, 11, Jahnero Poutawa, 10, Akacia Poutawa, 8, and Khyus Poutawa, 7.

The couple's 9-year-old son was the sole survivor.

Scouts manager Jenny Rodgers, who was in the other vehicle, was also killed in the crash, bringing the crash toll to eight.

Earlier that month, five members of a Rotorua family were killed after a car slammed into a gum tree, on Tirohanga Rd, south of Kinleith.

Those who died in the April 1 crash were Peter Senior Rangikataua, 44, from Rotorua, his nephew Rangi Rangikataua, 26, from Mokai and Peter's daughters Michelle Morgan-Rangikataua, 15, Aroha Morgan-Rangikataua, 14, and Kahukura Morgan-Rangikataua, 12.

Their 11-year-old brother, Isaac Morgan-Rangikataua, survived the crash.