A woman and three children whose bodies were found in an Ashburton home yesterday could have been dead for up to a week, police say.
The bodies of 31-year old Cindy George and her three children - a girl and two boys, aged between two and five - were found yesterday by the friends the family were house-sitting for.
Police said the deaths were most likely a tragic accident. Canterbury District Commander John Price, who briefed media today, said it was believed they died from fumes from a car that was left running in a garage connected to the house.
He said when police arrived the car was out of petrol and the battery had gone flat.
Mr Price said Ms George was found in the hallway, a short way from the garage. Five-year-old Pio Raukete and the two boys - three-year-old Teuruaa George and two-year-old Telyzshaun George - were found in the lounge, where the television was still on.
He said, as often happens, the housesitter had been asked to run the car for a period of time to keep it in good running order.
Mr Price said the house was modern and well sealed which meant the fumes from the car became trapped and built up quickly.
He said the bodies had now been taken to Christchurch and post-mortems would be conducted on Monday.
Police will not know the exact cause of the deaths until after the post-mortems are completed.
Ms George was estranged from the children's father, who also lives in Ashburton and is receiving help from victim support.
Mother always smiling - community leader
Mid-Canterbury Cook Islands community leader Tony Vainerere said Ms George, 31, moved to the town about five years ago.
He said she always had a smile on her face and her children meant the world to her.
"She's a very lively person, bubbly... The last time I met her was last Friday at a supermarket. She tapped me and I turned around and there was this big laugh," he said.
"The last thing I remember about her was the smile on her face."
Earlier this morning, Mid South Canterbury Police Area Commander Inspector Dave Gaskin said there were no overt signs of any trauma to those who died.
"At the moment we have a completely open mind, we're not sure at all what's happened. And obviously that will be part of our investigations. We will consider all of our options."
''It doesn't appear as if there has been any foul play from what we've found out so far.
"So we're just working through the how and reasons and how these people died.
"Then, finally, we will be concentrating on exactly why it happened, going through every scenario to make sure we piece it all together."
The owners of the house discovered the bodies when they returned from a trip away, but it was not known how long the bodies had been there, Mr Gaskin said.
"The family who the house belongs to have been away for quite a long time and the people who were looking after the house while they were away, so they could have been there for some time."
Street cordoned off
A large section of the street remained cordoned off this morning, however residents were allowed to return to their homes on foot last night after police deemed there was no threat to their safety.
Mr Gaskin said when officers initially entered the house they reported smelling gas.
This was checked by firefighters and found to be a false alarm.
Neighbours spoken to by Radio New Zealand said the area was normally a quiet one and they were shocked by what had happened.
Michael and Charmaine Costello, who arrived today from Taupo to visit their son, found they were locked out of his home which was inside the cordon.
They said the whole situation was stressful.
Rex Turnball, who lives on the edge of the cordon, said he first realised something was going on when he arrived home from work and saw ambulances, fire engines and police cars parked on his street.
He said it was clear early on there was no reason for anyone on the street to fear for their safety as a result of what had had happened.
It is the second major tragedy for Ashburton in recent times. Last year, a shooting at the local Work and Income office ended with two workers dead and another two seriously injured.
The mayor, Angus McKay, said the town came together following that awful event and he was confident it would do the same again this time around.
He passed on his condolences to the families of those found dead in the house in Tinwald.