28 Mar 2014

'Table size' rocks rained down on car

10:12 pm on 28 March 2014

A firefighter at the scene of rockfall that killed a woman in a car on a remote King Country road says some of the boulders were as big as dinner tables.

If you witnessed the rockfall and would like to share pictures or video with us, please email it to: iwitness@radionz.co.nz

The 76-year-old was a passenger in the car being driven by her sister on State Highway 3 between Piopio and Mahoenui when rocks tumbled from above the road about 10.30am on Friday. The driver escaped with minor injuries, but the passenger died at the scene.

Firefighter Tama Williams was one of the first emergency workers to arrive and said the force of the rockfall pushed the car several metres down the road.

"There would have been 12 to 15 rocks ranging in size from about football size to the size of a dining table. At least one very large one struck the car because it's pushed the whole side of the car and shunted the car onto the other side of the road."

Mr Williams said the accident was the third callout in five years they have had to falling rocks in the area.

Senior Sergeant Andrew O'Reilly said the driver is receiving victim support and what has happened is extremely tragic.

"Ten seconds each side, and it wouldn't have got anyone. Either that, or it might have hit someone else ... It's just a sheer freak incident that's resulted in someone dying - that's the tragedy of it."

Police said engineers inspecting the site were put in danger by a media helicopter filming the scene on Friday afternoon after the down-draft from the rotors dislodged more rocks from the cliff face which then fell on workers below. No one was injured, but police said it was disconcerting and potentially dangerous.

Road closed

The New Zealand Transport Agency says it has geotechnical specialists at the scene assessing the state of the rockface.

It is hoped one lane of the road can be reopened during the weekend, but for now remains closed until the agency is confident the cliff face is stable and measures are in place to make the road safe for motorists.

Drivers are urged to avoid unnecessary travel between New Plymouth and Te Kuiti until the road is fully open.