A young woman pushing a pram was among those who narrowly escaped tragedy when a driver fleeing police in a stolen vehicle barrelled through a residential street, crashing into a parked car as hundreds queued to pick up free hangi for Matariki celebrations in Shannon, Horowhenua, this afternoon.
The driver tried to run from the scene on Grey St but was quickly surrounded by 30 to 50 incensed people from among the crowd of about 300, some kicking and punching him before a policeman driving behind the man ran to the man’s aid, witness Richard Smith said.
“Everybody was really angry with him … he tried to run away, but there were just too many people there and they just grabbed him, and they were really angry and upset.
“It was lucky the cop ran straight in because he was getting a hiding, this young fella, because the community were not happy with what happened. He could have easily killed a lot of people.”
Among them was a woman pushing a toddler in a pram and who had just finished crossing the road when the fleeing driver roared past travelling at a speed of at least 80km/h before crashing about 10m further down the road, Smith said.
“It was literally seconds after she crossed … she was really angry, and she came running up the road. She was screaming, ‘I’m gonna get you’ … even after they were taking the young fella away, she was screaming.”
Another witness described feeling a rush of wind before hearing a smash as she put her kids in the car. She then saw a police officer draw a gun when angry witnesses got out of control, but no shots were fired.
The officer was left bleeding from the face after being caught in the fray, the woman said.
Smith had just picked up his free hangi and was crossing the road when he heard a police siren, quickly realising a dark red ute coming towards him wasn’t going to stop.
“I carried on across the road and I got behind the cars that he actually [ended up hitting] … there were things flying over the top of me and I kind of just ducked and got onto the footpath.”
The driver struck one car before crashing into a second, which was then pushed into a third car before the man tried to run away, Smith said.
While some were punching and kicking the man, who Smith thought was aged in his mid-20s, others were trying to stop them.
“They were like, ‘we’ve got this, it’s all under control’ and others were just, you know, really upset and angry … when the policeman got there, he went straight in. He was just jostling between everybody, trying to get through because there was a lot of people and the guy had fallen on the ground.
“Everybody was yelling and screaming and it was hard to hear what the policeman was saying.”
Five or six more police cars arrived within minutes, Smith said.
“They came from all directions.”
One officer searched the ute, asking witnesses, ‘has anybody seen a weapon?’, he said.
Meanwhile, walkie talkies held by Māori wardens already at the scene for the Matariki celebration were buzzing with activity.
“I could hear them saying, ‘keep the people back, keep them off the road and let the police do their job’.”
Smith was at the community event with his wife Phyllis and sister-in-law, during a visit to Shannon to see family.
“We’re down from Hamilton. We heard there was a hangi so we said, ‘let’s go’ … it’s a shame [this happened] because it was such an awesome community spirit and it was really a shame that it had to end like that, when everybody was so frightened, scared and angry.”
Another witness, who asked not to be named, said she and her four kids were “really enjoying” the Matariki celebrations until the incident.
”I started loading my kids in the car and then all of a sudden there was like this blur, I felt the wind rush and there was just this smash.”
The Shannon mum told her eldest child to lock the kids in the car before she ran to see what had happened.
”This ute had hit the back of a van on the left-hand side, and then because they had cars parked on the medium strip as well, [the ute] ricocheted off that and to the black van that was parked in the middle.
“Then the [offenders] car door flew open; he got out and I think that he made it two steps before the locals had him.”
She said she witnessed a police officer unload a gun when the local mob got out of control, but no shots were fired, the woman said.
”This one guy just like leapt across at him and swung his fist than there were others and there was kicking, and punches thrown. Then this police officer jumped into the fray and unfortunately, I think he got caught in the crossfire.
“The officer had a bad head injury, bleeding down his face, as well as an injury on his arm. If I had crossed the road maybe 30 seconds later, we probably would have been right in the path of it. It was all just crazy.”
After a police car escorted the man from the crowd, the Fire and Emergency team and Māori wardens began calming witnesses.
”There was someone further down the road who was quite pale and laying on the ground, I don’t think they were hurt, I’m not sure if it was shock.
“If those cars have not been parked in the median strap, the way he ricocheted off he would have gone straight into the stalls. Those cars probably saved lives today.”
Cherie Howie is an Auckland-based reporter who joined the Herald in 2011. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.