One dead in 70m horror plunge
An early morning drive home turned to horror for a group of young people after their van plummeted more than 70 metres down a cliff in the central South Island yesterday, killing one of the six occupants.
Police are astounded anyone survived the dramatic crash, as several passengers were not wearing seatbelts and were thrown clear of the van.
The Sunday Star-Times has been told the male driver fell asleep but police would not confirm that. A female teenager died, two males are critically ill in Christchurch Hospital, and the three remaining occupants - one male and two female were also last night being treated there and were in stable conditions.
The group was aged 16 to 22 and were driving back to Christchurch when the accident happened in thick fog just before 6am.
Their van rolled down a steep bank before coming to rest on the railway track off State Highway 73, the West Coast Rd, between the township of Cass and Bealey Spur.
Rescuers had a difficult job, carrying the injured on stretchers 400m along the tracks to get to an area where helicopters could land.
Police have ruled out the foggy conditions as a cause, but say speed, alcohol and driver fatigue will be part of the investigation.
Joanna Scowen from Grasmere Lodge, near the crash scene, heard the helicopters flying over "pretty early in the morning".
"I just feel so sorry for them . . . the poor buggers."
State Highway 73 was closed until about 11am yesterday. Trains were also stopped until the crumpled van was removed.
Darfield police constable Tony Beaumont said it was too early to confirm the details and information about the six passengers was limited.
"I am still trying to find out where the three women were from but to the best of my understanding the three young men were all from Christchurch.
"The van took a gradual right-hand bend before leaving the road and falling about 70m or more down the cliff . . . and at some stage it started rolling before landing upside down on the railway line."
He said some of the passengers in the back had not been wearing seatbelts and were "ejected from the van".
Looking at the van, he said it was a surprise anyone survived.
Emergency services staff from Darfield, Christchurch, the West Coast and other parts of the Selwyn district attended the crash.
A KiwiRail digger was able to move the van's wreckage from the track and it would be sent away for examination, Beaumont said.
A Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman said a female and male were in critical condition in the intensive care unit, while two males and a female were in a stable condition in Christchurch Hospital's emergency department.
Cass resident Barry Drummond headed to the crash scene about 7.45am after hearing the rescue choppers.
Drummond, who used to work for KiwiRail, said in his 25 years in Cass he'd seen about four or five cars leave the road and end up on the tracks. "It's quite a bad stretch of road, especially for people who don't know it very well."
He said it was a frosty morning yesterday but it wasn't cold enough for black ice on the roads.
"We had the thickest fog I've seen out here for a while though."
Drummond understood the driver had fallen asleep, and another source said that is what police believe caused the crash.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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