A horrified Sam Nuthall saw two of his workmates crushed to death as a tornado swept through a construction site.
The tornado brought devastation to a one kilometre stretch of the Auckland suburb of Hobsonville, when it touched down about 12.15pm yesterday, ripping roofs from houses, toppling trees and sending debris flying.
Three construction workers building a new secondary school were killed, at least two of them when the tornado flicked over massive concrete tilt-slab walls, crushing them and what looked to be the flat bed of a truck.
Nuthall, a Hawkins Construction worker, had shared a laugh with one of the men he named only as Tom just a few hours before seeing him crushed by the 15m precast concrete panel.
Nuthall said Tom was the "head guy" for rigging company GGE on the construction site for the new Hobsonville Pt secondary school.
He said Tom was sitting inside a truck and another worker was standing just in front when the tornado winds hit. Several precast concrete panels, each held in place vertically by an angle brace, were thrown down.
"There was about two or three of [the precast panels] that tipped over and a couple landed on the truck and one landed half on the ground and half on the truck. That was the one that landed on top of the two guys," he said.
A third man working on the construction site was also killed.
Nuthall said he was devastated by the freak accident.
"[I'm] just gutted, gutted really. I spoke to him this morning, one of the guys, and he was just how he usually is.
"He was almost like the life of the site, always having a bit of a laugh."
Nuthall said he had been nagging Tom to move a support brace so that he could move his digger and they "had a bit of a chuckle about that".
Nuthall, who was working on plumbing at the site, said he and other workers had to take cover for three to four minutes during "intense" peaks in the furious storm.
"We saw a big raincloud come over and there was no warning, all of a sudden this hurricane, it just came through and it was just carnage up there."
Nuthall said he got his workmates together and they crouched down between a big block wall and a truck. "We just had to hold on and stick it out."
Hawkins Construction executive general manager Dan Ashby said the company's immediate focus was on supporting the affected workers' families and its staff and subcontractors on site.
A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's labour division spokeswoman said it was not involved in investigating the deaths as the tornado appeared to be an "act of God".
Across the road from the construction site, residents in suburban Wallingford Way cowered in cupboards and wardrobes as their houses were torn apart, trees uprooted and living rooms laid bare to the elements.
Homeowner Debbie Booty stood in the ruins of her house and described being home alone when the twister struck. "I knew it was bad when I saw empty flowerpots flying past the window."
She took shelter in the bathroom but one by one the windows blew in, leaving broken glass coating the floors of her home. Scared for her life, she rushed into a wardrobe.
When she emerged she looked up at where her ceiling used to be and saw the sky.
She joined about 250 other people driven from their homes who were sheltering at nearby Whenuapai air force base.
"It's just so close to Christmas. We're safe though, everything else is just things."
A couple of doors down the road, Alex Butson's first thought was to save his girlfriend Melanie Kassian, who was downstairs in the kitchen. "I ran down and threw her under the stairs. That's when the second window and top window blew out."
As she huddled under the stairs, the whole roof blew off and windows shattered. Outside, trees were uprooted.
Their house was deemed unsafe, one of 220 declared uninhabitable in Whenuapai and Hobsonville and evacuated.
Prime Minister John Key offered his condolences and will visit the suburb today.
An ambulance spokeswoman said five crews attended different scenes and air force rescue and security crews could be seen pitching in with fire and police services.
Seven people were admitted to hospital with moderate and minor injuries.
Along with the wind damage, torrential rain flooded homes and brought motorways and roads to standstills.
Auckland Council said winds of up to 150kmh were recorded and 21mm of rain fell in 10 minutes.
The suburbs of Henderson, Greenhithe and Riverhead were still without power last night.
Later a twister caused chaotic scenes in Rotorua. A large gum tree fell and took down power lines in the Ngongotaha area.
Part of a road was closed and residents were evacuated to the Farm House horse-trekking facility, where a group of children from Mokoia Intermediate School had been riding horses when the storm hit.
Forty children and 13 adults - including Sunnex Rd residents, Mokoia Intermediate teachers and Farm House workers - were still at the Farm House and would remain there until the road opened.
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