An intensive care nurse who worked tirelessly for days to help White Island burns victims has died in a road crash in the Bay of Plenty.

Sheila Cheng, 50, was killed after the vehicle she was a passenger in and another vehicle collided head-on on State Highway 30, Tikitere, just after 3.30pm last Saturday.

Her husband, Rhys Bugden, 49, was in the front passenger seat and suffered critical internal injuries, his mother, Pam Greenhalgh, has revealed.

Rotorua road policing manager Senior Sergeant Malcolm Collins said the cause of the crash - which left five people injured - was under investigation. The driver of the other vehicle was the sole occupant and was in Rotorua Hospital.

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Greenhalgh, 74, told the Bay of Plenty Times it had been the "week from hell".

She and her son are partners in the well-known Whakatāne business Bear Cottage.

Greenhalgh said because her daughter-in-law's car was stolen and written off two days before last week's volcanic eruption, they had to take her back and forth to the hospital for her shifts.

"Sheila was an intensive care nurse at Whakatāne Hospital and she had been working very long overtime hours helping care for the victims of the White Island eruption," she said.

Rhys Bugden and his late wife Sheila Cheng who was killed in a crash on December 14. Photo / Supplied
Rhys Bugden and his late wife Sheila Cheng who was killed in a crash on December 14. Photo / Supplied

Sheila and Rhys were taking a few hours' respite with some friends on Saturday. As they were heading back to Whakatāne from Rotorua they got as far as Hells Gate when the accident happened, Greenhalgh said.

"There was a terrible, terrible crash ...''

Greenhalgh said her son was initially taken to Rotorua Hospital and then transferred to Waikato Hospital but was now out of ICU and in a ward.

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When her son came out of the coma, the first thing he asked was, "Where's Sheila?"

Greenhalgh said: "I didn't want to be the one to tell him, but the doctors thought it was best it came from me. Telling Rhys was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.

"No mother ever wants to inform their son the love of their life has gone. Rhys has taken it really hard and he and our whole family still can't believe it," Greenhalgh said.

The couple had been married about four years.

Rhys Bugden with his wife Sheila Cheng. The couple were involved in a car accident at Lake Rotoiti killed Shiela. Photo / Supplied
Rhys Bugden with his wife Sheila Cheng. The couple were involved in a car accident at Lake Rotoiti killed Shiela. Photo / Supplied

They first met about 20 years ago during a Christian missionary training programme on the Doulos Ship, which involved visits to Third World countries.

Not a couple at the time, they had helped to rebuild schools and other essential buildings damaged during bombings and other attacks during wars and conflicts, she said.

Greenhalgh said her daughter-in-law was an "amazing person".

"Sheila was so full of love for everybody. She was the most loving and caring person I have ever met who just wanted to help other people.

"She always thought of other people's needs before her own and she loved everyone. I never heard her say a bad word about anyone."

"While Sheila and Rhys had married late in life, they were true soul mates," she said.

A distraught Greenhalgh said she was in the midst of trying to make funeral arrangements.

Sheila's father is dead and her mother, in her 80s, had not yet been told of her daughter's death, Greenhalgh said.

The police cordon at the intersection of State Highway 30 and 33. SH30 was closed for several hours. Photo / Andrew Warner
The police cordon at the intersection of State Highway 30 and 33. SH30 was closed for several hours. Photo / Andrew Warner

Also in the vehicle seated between Sheila and a family friend was a 7-year-old girl who is now in Starship hospital in Auckland.

The girl's mother, Amanda Lorin, said her daughter suffered minor blood loss and had several abrasions on her body. She also had issues with her eyesight.

Lorin, a close friend of Sheila Cheng, described her as an "amazing soul" who had been "front and centre" during the medical response to the Whakaari/White Island tragedy.

Lorin was "heartbroken" by Cheng's death.

"Sheila was a such an amazing, bubbly, kind and loving person... I just loved her and her death is very hard to take," she said.

Bugden was the front seat passenger in the car being driven by Lorin's father, who escaped with minor injuries.

Her stepmother was in the back seat behind Lorin's father and remained in Waikato Hospital in a serious condition after having surgery.

Lorin has set up a Givealittle page and said all funds donated would go towards helping Sheila's family with funeral costs and also with Rhys Bugden's medical costs.

David van Dijk, Whakatāne Hospital co-ordinator and duty nurse manager, said: "Our staff are deeply saddened by the loss of our respected, much loved and valued colleague, ICU Nurse Sheila Cheng.

"Sheila was one of the many staff who treated and comforted casualties from the Whakaari/White Island eruption. Our thoughts, love and support are with Sheila's family at this time," van Dijk said.

A Givealittle page has been started to help raise funds to support Sheila's family.