Bus crash near Arthur's Pass 'worst incident I have ever attended'
Paramedics arriving at the "horrific" scene of a bus crash near Arthur's Pass found people with partially amputated feet and hands, head injuries and broken bones.
St John territory manager and incident commander Kerry Mitchell said Thursday's crash between a car and bus in the Otira Gorge, involving 36 people, was "definitely the worst incident I have ever attended".
"Certainly the biggest, with the most patients I have ever seen at any one scene," he said.
It was "manageable chaos" thanks the the combined efforts of the emergency services, Mitchell said.
Four tourists injured in the crash have been discharged from hospital, but two remain in critical condition.
Eight people were taken to Christchurch Hospital, seven by helicopter and one by road, and eight were taken to Grey Base Hospital in Greymouth with minor or moderate injuries.
It is understood the people in the car were tourists from Europe and the people in the bus were a tour group from Asia..
Mitchell said one person was trapped between the coach and the road. The Fire Service used jacks and digging equipment to get them out.
Injuries included "broken bones, soft tissue injuries, crush injuries, partial traumatic amputations and head injuries".
The coach was about a metre away from the edge of the gorge and struck the road barrier about two metres from where it ended, he said.
"If the bus had been a little bit further to the left, there would be a very different story today."
Bus and Coach Association of New Zealand president Alister McDermott said the coach was operated by Lincoln firm Travlon Coachlines.
Travlon staff declined to comment.
People close to the company said staff are "devastated" and "in shock".
"It is the worst thing that could happen to a coach operator. There is nothing worse," said one friend of the company owner.
Mitchell praised members of the public who helped injured people at the scene before emergency services arrived.
"We were very fortunate in that there were a lot of members of the public that pitched in and helped.
"There was such a huge outpouring of assistance from the public. It is really reassuring to know that when the chips are down, Kiwis will help."
The crash happened on Windy Corner towards the bottom of the steep part of Otira Gorge. Motorists helped those trapped before emergency services arrived.
"There were nurses there and people with medical backgrounds which was really lucky," said Department of Conservation senior ranger Chris Stewart, who was one of the first people at the scene.
Geoff Cloake and wife Marthy, who were also quick to arrive on the scene, said it was amazing how other motorists stopped to help. Two men on motorcycles had broken the bus's window and had lifted people free.
"I ran back to ask everyone in the line of cars if they knew first aid or had a first aid kit. I brought my first aid kit up and tried to administer first aid," Geoff Cloake said. "It was very hard to communicate because they didn't speak English. There was a woman interpreting Mandarin but she said they didn't all speak Mandarin. "
Marthy Cloake, a former nurse, looked after a critically-injured man.
"It was heartening to see how people responded. Each injured person had a team looking after them. People were giving out water and sunscreen looking after the carers too, " she said.
"There were so many people, so many injured and in shock. They were lucky they didn't go over the bank," she said.
The road – one of the main routes to the West Coast – was closed for several hours while emergency services dealt with the accident.
The police serious crash unit is investigating the cause of the accident. It would consider all potential causes, including the possibility of a mechanical failure on the bus, a police spokeswoman said.