Family denies alcohol a factor in deadly crash
JONATHAN CARSON, SIENA YATES AND TOM HUNT
The family of a driver in a crash that killed four people denies alcohol was a factor, saying he has been sober for years.
Roland Whitney, 59, of Putaruru, had awoken from an induced coma in Gisborne Hospital's intensive care unit, after he was pulled from the fiery wreck of his Ford Explorer on Saturday night.
Police were awaiting results of a blood test that would show whether alcohol was a factor in the crash on State Highway 2, north of Gisborne, about 9.15pm.
The long weekend road toll stood at seven late last night.
Mother-of-four Serena Smith, 33, was killed when the Ford Explorer allegedly crossed the centre line and crashed head-on into the van.
She was the designated sober driver on the night.
Mr Whitney's family says he was a devoted father and denied suspicions he could have been drinking.
His 14-year-old son, Te Anau Whitney, partner Helena Moore and a third person all died after the vehicle burst into flames.
Whitney's cousin Barbara Whitney said he was "very family-oriented" and had not touched alcohol since his first wife died from cancer in the late 1990s.
"He used to be a big drinker, big smoker, all of that - gave it all up, the whole lot," she said. "They said this accident was alcohol-fuelled and I know he don't drink and he's given up for years."
She said he had seven children with his first wife and to learn that one of his sons and his partner had died would devastate him.
"It's going to hit him really hard because he's not only lost his son, but he's lost his partner too. He was close with all his kids."
Mr Whitney had been driving to Gisborne for the long weekend because his partner's family was from the area and they were considering moving there.
Shayla Rata attended Putaruru College with Te Anau and described him as "pretty cool" and always up for a laugh.
"He was just cheeky, he always had something smart to say. But he was funny, real funny. It's just sad, really," she said.
Putaruru College principal Mike Ronke said Te Anau had been at the school for three years and was popular with his peers.
"He's a fairly quiet, reserved boy."
Tributes from friends and family members were also flooding in on Facebook.
Teresa Whitney wrote: "I got you in my heart lil bro Te Anau im not letting go of you.....you left us lastnight only 14years old,,I know mum is there holding you close to her heart,,I love you I always will and I will never ever never ever forget you and your beautiful eyes." (sic)
Another family member, believed to be Ms Moore's daughter, wrote: "R.I.P Mum, And the bro Phoenix and Te anau. I will never forget how much you guys mean to me.and i hope you get better soon Roland Whitney.xx" (sic).
National road policing manager Superintendent Carey Griffiths said though the road toll before Labour Weekend was 226 - eight more than the same time last year - it was hoped 2012 could be our best year on the roads so far.
In December, the deadliest month, there would be increased road policing with staff actively discouraged from taking leave.
While this year to date had more "preventable" deaths than last year, the number of fatal crashes had dropped, from 202 to 197, he said.
But multiple-death crashes, such as the one near Gisborne, had risen.
The worst Labour Weekend toll was in 1978, when 16 were killed.
The holiday period ended at 6am today.
- Fairfax Media