Boulder fall victim named
A passenger killed in a freak rockslide in the King Country has been named by police.
The woman was 75-year-old Heather Joy Thompson, of New Plymouth.
She and her elderly sister were driving on a King Country highway when their Toyota was struck with brutal force from the side.
The falling boulders stoved-in the passenger side of the car about 10.30am yesterday, killing Thompson.
The pair were travelling from New Plymouth when their journey ended about 12 kilometres from Piopio. The force of the impact shunted the vehicle onto the south-bound lane and spun it 180 degrees.
There was one witness, a motorist following the pair, Piopio Volunteer Fire Brigade station officer Tama Williams said.
"He just said he didn't even notice the rocks coming. All of a sudden they bounced out into this car and the car got bounced out into the other lane. He didn't see it coming from above or anything. The driver didn't see it either."
Williams said some of the rock remnants were as large as a dinner table.
He described it as rotten luck. Others called the chance one in a billion.
Williams' crew was the first emergency service on scene. Two motorists were giving Thompson first aid on arrival. The driver had minor injuries.
"We did some quick first aid until the ambulance arrived five minutes later, but [the passenger] was pronounced dead then."
New Plymouth photo-journalist Rob Tucker came across the scene en route to Taupo and estimated there were tonnes of debris on the road.
"We couldn't believe that this poor woman was killed by a rock from a landfall - what are your chances of that happening?" he said.
He noticed a digger parked close by that he speculated may have been used to clear previous rock falls from the same bluff.
"That tells me that that rock face had been crumbling for some time and, I'm presuming, they'd been clearing it away bit by bit.
"Hang on a minute - why hadn't anyone actually had a good inspection of the cliff and say ‘this is incredibly dangerous'? It would take some geologist five seconds to say ‘this is all going to come down'. That digger must have been working at some stage because there were no roadworks."
Williams said rocks half the size of a car had fallen on to that section of State Highway 3 now and then over the years, but no-one had been hit.
He said you could clearly see the spot where the killer chunk fell off the vast cliff overhead. It would have fallen straight down, crashed on to a steep bank a few metres off the road then bounced straight onto the highway, he said.
NZ Transport Agency media manager Glenda Dobbyn would not comment on the presence of the roadside digger, saying they were waiting for the police report on the matter.
However, she said SH3 is monitored regularly for rock fall activity, as the nature of the topography and geological landscape made it prone to instability.
"The NZTA regularly carries out geotechnical investigations and assessments in the area, and several locations have been treated with localised rock scaling, vegetation removal and minor blasting," she said.
Specialist NZTA geotechnical assessors were assessing the state of the rock face last night.
Both the NZTA and the police warned motorists to avoid unnecessary travel between Te Kuiti and New Plymouth.
State Highway 3 between Mahoenui and Pio Pio had now re-opened to a single lane with manual stop/go traffic control in place, NZTA said.