26 Apr 2009

Policeman pulls children from fiery crash

9:55 pm on 26 April 2009

An off-duty police officer has described how he saved two children from a burning van that had crashed north of Taupo, using a pocket knife to free one of the children from a seatbelt.

Five people were killed when a van and car collided on State Highway 1 about 4pm on Friday. Four people in the van and the driver of the car died.

Police have named those who died in the van as: Wellis Lauano, 23, Lottie Purukamu Taitapanui, 45, Anna-Marie Kemp, 22 and Ratapu Taitapanui, who was three years old. The driver of the car Peter Pie, 42, also died.

Inspector Mike O'Leary was driving behind the car when the crash happened. "The car in front of us was vertical and twisting in the air," he said.

Inspector O'Leary says as he ran towards the burning wreckage of the van he heard screaming and saw two boys hanging out the window.

He said it seemed to take a long time to cut the seatbelt of one of the boys and was "just the greatest sensation" when he and others managed to pull the child from the wreckage.

He said one of the boys cried "I'm burning, I'm burning" as he was pulled from the van.

Both children were rushed to Rotorua Hospital. Nine-year-old Kawana Kemp underwent surgery on Friday night, and has since been moved to Waikato Hospital's intensive care unit where he is in a stable condition. A three-year-old boy was discharged from Rotorua Hospital on Saturday.

Kirstin-Leigh Pie, 11, who was rescued from the car by a local farmer, is also in Waikato Hospital, and is in a stable and satisfactory condition.

Her mother, Denise Pie, says her deepest sympathies go out to the families involved.

In a statement she thanked everyone involved in helping the accident victims and said Inspector O'Leary was very courageous.

Road policing manager Senior Sergeant Stu Nightingale said the process of identification was difficult because of the devastation caused by the fire, and police had to partly rely on information on who was in the van when it started its journey.

Senior Sergeant Nightingale said the crash scene was among the worst he has encountered.

He asked anyone who saw another car, a black sedan, driving erratically in the direction of Tokoroa to come forward.

A total of 14 people have died in car accidents since Friday morning.