The bodies of a family of five, including a newborn, may have lain in the mangled wreckage of their van for up to two nights after it ran off the road and ended up wrapped around a tree.
The wreckage of the late-model blue van was discovered by road workers yesterday afternoon on Whakamaru Rd (SH32), 31 kilometres southwest of Tokoroa.
Only 40 minutes before the discovery, two Indian tourists were killed just 30 kilometres away in a head-on collision with a truck on State Highway 1 near Atiamuri.
The family's van was found among pine trees, concealed from the road, about 6km from their home in Whakamaru.
Inside were the bodies of Richard Melling, 37, and driver Lisa Crowley, 23, and their three children, Jordan Melling, 11, Brody Crowley, 2, and a 2 or 3-week-old boy who police believe had yet to be named.
The blended family were last seen at their home at 8pm on Sunday, and police are unsure when the crash happened.
It appears the vehicle crossed the road on to a steep bank, rolled and smashed into two trees on the edge of a pine plantation.
The wreckage was wrapped around the trunk of the second tree, with the windscreen four metres away in scrub. The impact of the crash dislodged the engine from the chassis, and the damage was so severe that the make and type of the vehicle could not immediately be identified.
A deflated pink airbag rested on the driver's steering wheel, beside a McDonald's takeaway bag, and a child's plastic green and blue toy boat.
Firefighters from Rotorua and police from Tokoroa worked for more than two hours in light rain to extricate the bodies.
South and northbound traffic, diverted off SH1 to avoid the earlier fatal crash at Atiamuri, banked up for several kilometres until the bodies were removed.
The family were well known in Whakamaru, a small hydro power settlement alongside the Waikato River.
Kirti Singh, of the Whakamaru Store, said Ms Crowley had come to the shop to buy food on Sunday.
"She used to work here and we would give her leftovers from the takeaways for her family.
"Lisa brought Brody in with her and they had his favourite, which was chicken korma, a pie and a sausage."
The family had lived in the village for about five years and had whanau in nearby Mangakino, Ms Singh said.
"Richard was a dedicated family man, a bit rough but friendly. He had lots of tattoos and dreads . . . I joked with him to put his shirt on because he was too good-looking.
"It is very sad for this to happen so close to Christmas."
Meanwhile, police are trying to trace the relatives of the two Indian men killed shortly after 1pm.
Police said they were travelling south towards Taupo when they were in the head-on collision. Both men died at the scene.
The male truck driver and a female passenger, both from Kaitaia, were treated for minor injuries at Tokoroa Hospital.
Police were still trying to determine the causes of both crashes last night.
Taupo area commander Inspector Steve Bullock said: "Speed, alcohol, inattention and restraints - or lack of thereof - are the No 1 factors that contribute to fatalities on our roads, and we want people to think about all of those things before they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
"It's actually going to ruin the Christmas for the families involved . . . It's an absolute tragedy."
Assistant commissioner of road policing Dave Cliff said the crashes were a devastating prelude to the holiday period, which begins officially next week.
"This is a devastating loss and a horrific start to the Christmas period, especially as we focus on trying to reduce the rising road toll and make our roads safer."
The crashes come after the Ministry of Transport's announcement that the social cost of road crashes fell in 2011, due mainly to a 24 per cent reduction in deaths.
- © Fairfax NZ News
When was the last time you biked to work?Related story: On yer bike - more opt for two wheels