A 10-month-old baby is in a critical condition and her mother is one of four dead after of a road crash that one truckie described as "the worst thing they've seen in 20 years".
The crash in Taupo reportedly involved members of a Tongan church group, returning home to Palmerston North after a weekend event in Auckland.
Pesi Tuivai, 40, has been named as one of the four victims - she was one of eight people in the people-mover van that collided with a five-seat van. Her baby daughter, only 10 months old, is in a critical condition.
As well as the four killed, eight other people were injured.
Tuivai and her daughter had reportedly been picked up by the other members of the church group in Hamilton after their weekend in Auckland, and were returning home to Palmerston North.
Crumpled, shattered and obliterated vehicles were all that remained after the crash. Deserted luggage was strewn around the scene, including a child's small pink backpack.
A local truck driver was told by police that the crash "was the worst thing they've seen in 20 years".
The horror crash occurred near the intersection of State Highway 1 and Tutukau Rd around 3.15pm, blocking both lanes on SH1 for hours.
Since Friday, 13 people have died on the roads. This brings the road toll to 296 for 2017, up 44 on the same time last year.
Three people were airlifted to Waikato Hospital including the 10-month-old baby who is critical, with multiple injuries. A man, 42, is critical but stable with multiple injuries, and a 32-year-old woman is serious but stable with chest and abdominal injuries.
Two little girls are among the injured. A police spokeswoman confirmed two girls aged 2 and 3 are in Rotorua Hospital with minor injuries. They were admitted with three women from the same crash. A 66-year-old and 17-year-old are in a critical condition and a 41-year-old has minor-moderate injuries.
All are expected to remain in Rotorua Hospital overnight.
The truck driver, who did not want to be named, was allowed to drive past the crash scene to continue his journey. What he saw was "a total mess" and the vehicles were covered up to hide the bodies of the deceased.
St John media spokeswoman Victoria Hawkins described the crash as a "major incident that needs investigating".
Senior Sergeant Nicky Cooney said their utmost priority was to find and notify the loved ones of the victims.
Cooney believed three of the four people in the smaller vehicle had died, and one person had died out of the eight passengers in the people mover.
Police were investigating the scene and analysing the vehicles, environmental factors plus weather and road conditions.
Cooney wanted to reinforce safe-driving messages to other motorists.
"Drive to the weather conditions, reduce your speed. It's the school holidays so we always expect people to travel longer journeys. But, take frequent breaks and don't underestimate driver fatigue, change drivers or pull over and have a rest."
Road deaths peaked at 843 in 1973 and have come down to an average of 333 a year for the past decade. But they have been creeping up again since 2013.
Police national road policing manager Steve Greally was saddened to hear of the four who had lost their lives and the injured who "are not out of the woods yet". But he was simultaneously frustrated with the mounting numbers of people dying on the roads.
"It's a very, very terrible time for them, their families and friends.
"Families are the most important thing we have in life. To have them so unfairly taken away from us, to be robbed of them by something so preventable, is just gutting."
He said most crashes came down to the drivers' decisions with speed, alcohol and not wearing a seat belt being the key factors in most fatal crashes. Speed could be attributed to 30 per cent of fatal crashes. An increased population and cheaper petrol meant more people were on the roads which was also affecting numbers.
New Zealand had a shameful road toll and scored near the bottom of the OECD in road safety, Greally said.
Some speed limits were too high for the road and road control authorities were looking at lowering them, he said. While there were some long term solutions in motion, like better highways, Greally urged drivers to take their future into their own hands.
"At the end of the day you're the adult you're the one that has got to make a decision about how you drive. It's a cop out to say it's the police or Government's fault in some way.
"We know that speed and an impediment from alcohol, drugs and fatigue and lack of seat belt are the absolute killers on our roads.
"No appointment you're traveling to is worth breakneck speed. We want people to pay attention it's bloody serious business and it's just heartbreaking."
Taupo mayor David Trewavas had been liaising with police over the "bloody tragic" crash. He was told the crash victims were New Zealanders.
"This is very sad ... Not only for the victims but the emergency services, the firsts on the scene and everything. It trickles down ... we'll be monitoring closely those affected."
Trewavas said a fatality had occurred in a similar spot a few years ago and that area of road was known for being a high crash zone. He urged motorists to be more careful.
"It's a terrible feeling. We think, what can we do? How can we help? How can we improve things? We keep trying to improve things.
"Taupo is always going to be here. People have just got to be so careful because we are a major connective point."
Police said late tonight that the road was now open.
Photo / John van de Ven The wreckage of the two motor vehicles involved in the horror crash on State Highway 1 north of Taupo that claimed four lives this afternoon.