Firefighter arrives at crash to find mate dead in wreck

Gamini Vithanage is remembered as a humble and kind-hearted family man.

Gamini Vithanage is remembered as a humble and kind-hearted family man.

It was Gamini Vithanage​'s last day in the Waikato.

The Hamilton man was planning to follow his family to Dunedin, where his youngest daughter had got into university, but he was killed in a crash not far from Putaruru, at the start of his trip south.

Minutes earlier, he had been saying goodbye to a Putaruru mate.

Putaruru firefighters were called to the crash on SH1, 4km south of Putaruru, at 5.45pm on Thursday.

Putaruru firefighters were called to the crash on SH1, 4km south of Putaruru, at 5.45pm on Thursday.

And it would be that same mate, a volunteer firefighter, who would be one of the first on the scene.

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"It's a really unbelievable thing that has happened," said family spokeswoman Chandani Jinadasa​, who is president of the Sri Lanka Friendship Society Waikato.

Vithanage, 56, was an active member of the society and well loved, she said.

He was meant to be starting a long journey on the day he died - all the way to Dunedin.

His younger daughter, Nadiru, had been accepted to Otago University.

"That was [the parents'] biggest hope," Jinadasa said.

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"They wanted her to be a medical practitioner."

Vithanage's wife, Janitha​, had moved to Dunedin, as had elder daughter Sandaru​, who was transferring her science degree study to Otago from Waikato.

As the only breadwinner, Vithanage had stayed behind in Putaruru, working as a VTNZ vehicle inspector, until he could transfer to Queenstown.

"I'm so sad. We are all crying because we all loved him - the whole community loved him," Jinadasa said.

Vithanage was known for his loud voice and equally loud laugh.

When his family was farewelled in February, he played a devil in a skit, and had the crowd of more than 400 in stitches, Jinadasa said.

He was humble and kind-hearted, ready to lend a hand at society fundraisers, she said.

Once, when he was back in Sri Lanka for a holiday, he heard Jinadasa's mother-in-law had died and drove 300km to attend the funeral.

Now, his wife and daughters are back in Hamilton and staying with friends while the Sri Lankan community helps with funeral arrangements and offers support.

They're not sure if they want to go back to Dunedin, Jinadasa said.

Police said investigations into the cause of the crash are ongoing.

Not long after 5.30pm on Thursday, Vithanage left his mate's house and was heading home when his car and another vehicle crashed head-on about 4 kilometres south of Putaruru.

Responding in the first fire truck out of Putaruru station was his friend "of many years", Putaruru Fire Chief Nathan Bennetto said.

"The deceased was actually a very good friend of one of my firefighters.

"He was on the scene with us - on the truck with myself and we had to comfort him.

"He just broke down."

He said Vithanage left the firefighter's home in Putaruru 10 minutes before the crash. 

By the time fire crews arrived at the scene on State Highway 1, he had died. 

Fellow firefighters tried to comfort the volunteer, pulling him back on to the truck. Vithanage was Buddhist, and a priest from the Sri Lankan man's local temple arrived shortly after. 

"It wasn't very nice, unfortunately."

Bennetto had contacted the Fire Service's peer-support team, which would be providing wraparound support to the volunteer and his family.

"He's one of our local guys who's been in the brigade for a number of years. It's been a bit hard for him."

At the same time, other brigade members still had to deal with the scene. Cutting the body from the car was one of their jobs. 

Bennetto said the crash between a smaller vehicle and SUV happened on a straight section of road approaching a left-hand bend. 

"Both vehicles were off to the side of the road."

The driver of the other car was taken to Tokoroa Hospital before being transported to Waikato Hospital in a serious condition.

"We waited for the police photographer and for the investigation to be done.

"It made for a long night for us."

The collision closed the road until 11pm on Thursday. Traffic was further hampered by a truck that rolled on the diversion route on Lichfield Road.

The Serious Crash Unit is investigating the circumstances surrounding the fatal crash.

"All road deaths are a tragedy and while the investigation is still in the early stages, all motorists are reminded to only drive when they are well rested, to avoid distractions and to drive to the conditions," Senior Sergeant Fane Troy said. 

The man was one of four people who died in three crashes in 12 hours overnight on Thursday. 

A female passenger and the male driver of a car died after a head-on crash between a car and truck on State Highway 1 in East Taieri-Allanton, near Dunedin, early on Friday morning, police said.

The driver had been trapped in the car with critical injuries after the crash.

Another early morning fatal crash between a car and a truck happened on SH1 about 2 kilometres south of Makikihi, South Canterbury. 

The driver of the car died at the scene, while the truck driver was treated at the scene but was not seriously injured, police said.

 - Stuff

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