Freak boulder fall kills elderly passenger
No one saw the rocks coming.
One moment two elderly sisters were driving on a King Country highway, the next 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 the 76-year-old passenger.
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.
Mr Williams' crew was the first emergency service on scene. Two motorists were giving the injured woman 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."
Mr 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.
"While we are aiming to re-open the road to a single lane for this weekend, it will remain closed until we are confident that the cliff face has been stabilised and necessary measures are in place to ensure the safety of road users."
Both the NZTA and the police warned motorists to avoid unnecessary travel between Te Kuiti and New Plymouth. The highway remained closed last night as engineers assessed the cliff's stability.
Senior Sergeant Pete van de Wetering said diversions were put in place at the northern end of Piopio and to the south, at the intersection of SH3 and Totoro Rd via Aria.
"Police are advising against all but essential travel and if you need to use these extensive diversions ensure you have sufficient fuel for the duration of your journey."
Meanwhile, earlier yesterday one person was critically injured and another suffered serious injuries when their car rolled on SH4 north of Mapiu about 7.30am.
Both people were trapped in the wreckage and firefighters were still working to cut the pair free an hour after arrival.
Mr Williams, who also attended the crash, said the SUV rolled multiple times on a straight stretch of road. Its tyres were ripped off and it came to a rest upright on the edge of the road facing the way it had come.