Those fateful seconds changed the lives of the eight people in the car and their families and friends forever. But, the effects of such a crash do not stop there.
Every crash that leaves someone dead or seriously hurt has an impact far greater than on just the people in the vehicles and those close to them. Like a rock being hurled into a pool of water, the ripples that flow outwards carry on well beyond the initial impact, even if they are not as obvious to see.
Here, some of those others affected by the crash talk about their experiences on that day and the ongoing aftermath.
Tong Kingi – Chief Fire Officer, Turangi Volunteer Fire Brigade
Tong Kingi was midway through a normal morning at home, getting his two young boys breakfast — when, at 7.28am, his pager went off alerting him of an incident. By 7.33am, the first of two trucks was rolling out of the station.
The reports coming through their radio during the 19-minute drive to the scene were inconsistent, but the tone of voice of the Police officer first on the scene left no doubt it was a devastating crash.
“I distinctly recall him saying multiple patients. In these cases, you start preparing yourself for any eventuality, whether it be cutting people out or any number of things.”
As Tong reached the crash site, the first things he saw were items thrown from the car, as it had rolled. Bags, clothes, and bits of the vehicle lay scattered on the road. The dreadful extent of the crash became clear to the fire crew as they found Daniela Rosanna Lekhno, Roch Jauberty and Austin Brashears dead, and Meg Theriault barely alive.
“We covered the three dead with blankets and the critically injured girl became the priority.”
A few minutes later, they learned another four people had been in the vehicle and that a local and his eight-year-old daughter were caring for them. Some of the officers and ambulance staff went to the house to check on them.
Over the next five hours, the fire officers helped to control traffic, secure the scene and assist with the bodies being taken to funeral directors.
In the wake of an incident like this, the officers won’t normally talk about what they have been through, but do spend some time together winding down before returning to the station for an informal debrief, says Tong. Then, being volunteers, “We leave the station and resume our normal daily lives”.
Over the next few days, the crew got together to ensure everyone was dealing well with what they had had to experience – an important part of the process for all the emergency services.
“Over the years, we’ve been to many horrific things. After anything big like this, I always go and kiss my kids and wife because I think it could just as easily be them. You’re always so appreciative of the things that you have when you witness something like this.”
While the officers will switch into their professional mode on their way to a crash, putting on a uniform does not make them immune to natural human reactions.
“When we arrive at a scene, we actually want to have the feeling in our stomachs of feeling sick because that still tells us that we’re human – that we have a normal human response to a horrific scene.
“The time when we arrive at a job and we don’t have any emotion is the time we have to ask, ‘Is it time to leave?’ because it would not be normal.
“But this sort of crash is not easily forgotten. I felt a lot for my crew, knowing full well that I had a 17-year-old fire fighter with us. No 17-year-old should have to see this sort of stuff,” Tong says. “I joined the service young and my attitude changed dramatically after attending my first fatality.
“They (drivers) would never in their wildest dreams think that an action they do or don’t do could have the effect it has, on them and on people like us.”
Sergeant Murray Hamilton, Road Policing Group, Taupo
From the first Police officer’s arrival, when the priority was to ensure safety and protect the scene, numbers quickly grew to include staff from Turangi, National Park, Taupo and the Police photographer from Rotorua. Nine officers in total attended the scene.
Once the survivors and victims had been taken from the site, the officers completed a scene examination and set to work gathering evidence on what had happened.
Four officers spent the next week looking over the evidence, interviewing the survivors and witnesses, holding meetings with the families of those involved, and forming a picture of events.
The Police legal services then made the decision to charge driver Stephen John Houseman with multiple counts of careless driving causing death and injury. He was convicted and discharged in June.
Sergeant Murray Hamilton from Taupo’s Road Policing group led the investigation into the crash. He has attended about 200 fatal crashes over the past 15 years, but says this incident got to him a bit more than most.
“You feel for everyone. Stephen, even though he was deemed at fault, I still felt for the guy. He had basically done everything right and made one little mistake. Unfortunately, it cost other people their lives. It’s a split second inattention and, for whatever reason, he dropped those wheels off the curbing.”
The Police discovered that Stephen had told everyone in the car several times to wear their seat belts and had made sure they were doing so before he drove. Tragically, four passengers had taken them off during the journey.
“Speaking to him on the day, he went through probably every stage of emotion. He was very upset that he had lost friends, then he was angry because they had taken their seat belts off. I guess he was also a little bit relieved that the others had survived.
“A couple of the girls passed the comment that if he hadn’t been so persistent, they wouldn’t have been wearing their seat belts, so he may have saved their lives.”
Graeme Harvey, Operations, Team Manager, St John, Taupo
The initial indication of the crash to the St John ambulance service was that there were multiple patients.
“When the number got up past five, I knew it was going to be bad,” says Graeme.
Two ambulances and a first response unit from Turangi were joined by two ambulances from Taupo and two rescue helicopters.
For the next two hours, 10 paramedics on the scene provided first aid to survivors and confirmed the three deaths. One of the rescue helicopters rushed Meg Theriault to Waikato Hospital, while two survivors were taken in the other chopper.
“When you are there, you are very much in your professional capacity, almost on automatic. It’s afterwards that it hits you that this event you’ve just been at has taken three lives. I don’t think you get used to that sort of tragedy, but you build up ways of dealing with it.”
Dr John Bonning, Clinical Director of Emergency Department, at Waikato Hospital
As the rescue chopper carrying Meg Theriault neared Waikato Hospital, a team of doctors and nurses prepared for her arrival.
“A young trauma victim clearly is somebody we’re going to throw everything at, so we’d have up to 10 or more doctors and nurses, even if it occurs at 3am on a Sunday morning,” says Dr Bonning.
“It’s like a pretty well-oiled machine looking after trauma victims. A for airway, B for breathing, C for circulation, D for disability and brain injury, E for exposure, looking at all the bones they’ve broken – and they can have internal injuries to their chest. If you’re ejected from a vehicle and survive, you are going to have horrendous injuries.”
The team helped save Miss Theriault’s life and she spent the next week in a drug-induced coma while her family travelled to New Zealand to be at her bedside. She ultimately ended up being in hospital for a month before being discharged and returning to the US to continue her rehabilitation.
Sadly, the incident was nothing unusual. On an ordinary day, the ER will probably deal with a dozen people with minor to moderate injuries from road crashes; people with life-threatening or serious injuries are brought in about three times each week.
“It’s not uncommon to get up to half a dozen people from one crash.
“You see the road toll and that’s coming down, and that’s great, but there would be five significant injuries per death,” says Dr Bonning.
“The impact of this sort of thing is far-reaching. The brain injuries are the worst in terms of ongoing costs, but all the people with broken limbs that the orthopods have to put back together and do numerous surgeries on, and the cost to ACC for the stuff that is done in hospital and then done privately is pretty enormous.”
Constantly seeing how hideous the consequences can be when things go wrong on the roads definitely has an impact on the staff, he says. “Everybody here has seen victims of crashes, so you won’t find any of us not wearing bike helmets or seat belts.”
These are only four of the other people affected by what happened in Turangi on that morning. Combined with the other Police officers, crash investigators, paramedics, firefighters, doctors, nurses, lawyers, court officials, tow truck drivers, funeral directors, roading contractors, insurance companies and many others, the crash impacted on hundreds of people.
The consequences of this accident were particularly horrific, but the awful fact is that there are about 2000 fatal or serious crashes in New Zealand each year. That equates to about five crashes every day that not only leave individual lives shattered, but place a huge burden on our emergency services and legal, health and welfare systems.
We all are affected.
The crashes on our roads were estimated to cost the country $3.54 billion in 2010. That is taking into account the loss of life and life quality, the medical costs, the legal costs, the damage to property and the impact on people’s ability to work and carry on their normal lives.
We must do more individually and as a society to improve road safety. We owe it to ourselves and to other road users – and we owe it to the people who are out there every day helping pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
The safe system
“Whose fault was it?”
After “Was anyone hurt?” this is the second question most people will ask about a crash.
Our first instinct is that crashes are mainly about someone screwing up behind the wheel and that the people who do so are bad drivers. In short, we expect perfection from drivers.
The reality is that everyone, even the best drivers, sometimes make mistakes and this is why the country adopted a ‘safe system’ approach to road safety in 2010.
Rather than trying to create an impossible utopia where no driver ever misses seeing something or makes a bad call, the safe system focuses on what we can do to ensure people aren’t killed or hurt when this happens.
“This means looking beyond the driver to the vehicles people are driving in, the roads they are on and the speed they are travelling at,” says AA Motoring Affairs General Manager Mike Noon.
Twenty-year-old Stephen John Houseman was convicted on multiple counts of careless driving causing death and injury for the crash in Turangi on May 12, but the tragic consequences – three lives lost, several others shattered, the impact on the wider community – was about much more than just the driver.
If everyone in the vehicle had been wearing seat belts, more people may have survived. If the road they were on had a wider shoulder and run-off area, it may have provided space to recover. If the road had a rumble strip, it might have allowed the driver to correct his position before it was too late. If the vehicle had electronic stability control, it may have stopped it from rolling.
Last year, there were 284 people killed and 12,574 injured on our roads. Many of those people were not reckless law-breakers, drunk drivers or speeders. They were people travelling to work or home or to the shops, when they or somebody else made a mistake.
“Driving should not be like walking on a tight-rope where one misstep can cost people’s lives. And it does not need to be,” says Mr Noon.
The AA is calling on the Government to spend $150 million more each year on safety improvements to roads, like installing median barriers, rumble strips and improving alignments.
The AA is also calling for minimum safety standards to be imposed on all imported vehicles, so the cars on our roads will protect people better if they are in a crash.
Reported by Dylan Thomsen for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue