Five teenagers were killed in a car crash outside Timaru last Saturday night, with just the young driver surviving. Police say speed and alcohol were factors. Herald senior journalists Kurt Bayer and Anna Leask report from a shattered community.
How often does the retelling of a tragedy begin with a normal day?
A normal Saturday for this tight-knit bevy of Timaru teenagers, like many teens across the country, indeed many parts of the world, meant hanging out.
Phones dinged. Hook-ups and hang-outs arranged. Promises made to be good and home for tea.
They often hung out at Javarney Drummond’s place. A cruisy kid whose house in the hilly suburb of Marchwiel was a social hub, for about 15 close mates, all different in their own ways, but together formed that close friendship group they thought would be part of for life.
But about 3.30pm, Javarney got his mum to give him a lift down the hill.
The 15-year-old was meeting mates at Caroline Bay skate park, a “sick park” with concrete bowls and quarter-pipes, down at the turn of the century European-style resort waterfront. Timaru: “Riviera of the South”.
There, among the boardwalks, popular with babies in buggies and dogwalkers, through the lines of cabbage trees and cultured gardens, they would scooter, skate, bike, pull tricks and faces, pump tunes and plot parties.
Hours would be wiled away filming stunts, downing energy drinks, riffing on school – some went to the Catholic college Roncalli, others Timaru Boys’ High School, Mountainview High, and Aoraki Alternative Education.
Normal. Normal teenage stuff.
Javarney, who was always keen on sports, especially soccer when he was younger and then rugby, loved his scooter.
But the real star of the park was Tyreese Fleming.
At 19, Fleming was older than the others, and one they looked up to. Popular, with an easy smile. He was good enough to get sponsored gear and on his social media account, where he advertised himself as being the “best scooter rider in Timaru”, would post video after video of nailed tricks – tail whips, grabs, bunnies, stalls.
Fleming also shared several videos on Snapchat on Saturday, including one where he appeared to be drinking alcohol. The photo would disappear the next day.
Meanwhile, the phones dinged. Niko Hill, 15, was sprouting up and with his sudden growth, was starting to really enjoy his rugby. Cheeky, outgoing, “Hillsy” played for under-16s for Roncalli College on Saturdays but was keen to hook up with the crew later.
Joseff “Joey” McCarthy, 16, Jack “Jacko” Wallace, 16, and 15-year-old Andrew Goodger was also around, and up for it.
Javarney said he would be home for tea about 6pm. But a few of them decided to wander over the highway to the Burger King by the petrol station for a quick feed and some warmth. Javarney’s dad Stephen Drummond kept his son’s meal for him. He could heat it up when he got home later.
They hung out at BK, fast-food snacking and scrolling their phones. More photos were shared online.
Just after 7pm, Javarney, Hill, McCarthy, Wallace and Goodger piled into Fleming’s 1991 Nissan Bluebird. It’s understood he got the unusual bluey-grey car, registered and warranted, for his 18th birthday. He’d just got his restricted licence – which came with the condition of no passengers allowed.
They piled in anyway. Since there was six of them it was packed, and one got in the boot, beside a long skateboard and some jumper leads.
Fleming drove north. There had been talk of a party in Temuka, the pottery town 20km up State Highway 1. More normal teenage stuff.
But instead of going straight along SH1, they veered slightly towards the coast at Washdyke, past the DB Draught Brewery and Heartland Potato Chips factory on Meadows Rd.
That industrial area, on the northern fringes of town which soon rolls into country backroads with quiet, wide roads, is popular with young drivers – especially boy-racers.
About 6pm that night, a local resident phoned 111 to complain about four cars racing and doing burnouts.
“The last thing I said to the call-taker was, ‘If you don’t send someone out here, someone will get killed’, and 90 minutes later, we had this,” said Ray Colvill, 70.
There’s no suggestion that Fleming, in his over-crowded and factory-spec Bluebird, was a boy-racer but there seems little doubt that he was going at speed along Meadows Rd when he came to the Seadown Rd intersection.
The road curves briefly at a give-way sign but he must have shot through there, swinging right onto Seadown Rd.
He never quite made the turn.
The car drifted onto the roadside grass verge, lost control, and went sideways into a concrete power pole.
In an instant, it was over.
The impact sliced the car in half. The two crumpled chunks would be found 35m apart.
Fleming was trapped in the driver’s seat, the engine still running. Brakes lights shone red in the dark.
A member of the public came across the crash and stopped, not fully aware of the horrors that lay there.
Talking to 111, they flagged down Melissa Bryce, a 34-year-old single mother-of-three, who was driving from her nearby home into Timaru for a night-out with friends as a sober driver.
Bryce, a property manager trained in first aid, pulled over and rushed to see what she could do.
In the dark, with no streetlights, it was hard to establish just what had happened.
The first thing she saw was the rear half of the car.
She saw two people in the back. She called out, asking if anyone could hear her. Nobody responded.
“Just by looking at the scene you could tell they hadn’t survived,” Bryce says.
But from somewhere in the darkness behind her, a voice said: “How the f*** did I survive this?”
“That’s when I realised there was a survivor,” Bryce says.
She went back to her car to grab her phone, wanting to use it as a torch.
After turning it on the scene, she saw the front part of the car.
The driver was still in the vehicle. She’s unsure if he had a seatbelt on.
She went up to him and introduced herself and asked if he realised what had happened.
Bryce asked the driver, who was clutching his cellphone, to turn off the car’s ignition.
“He was in shock, you could tell,” Bryce says.
“He was able to tell me that, yes, he had been in an accident and then kept saying, ‘How did I survive?’
She asked if he was in pain. He replied that his side was hurting and she made sure he stayed still.
Seeing the phone, she asked Fleming if there was anyone he wanted her to contact – and he replied, his mother.
“I didn’t sugarcoat it, Bryce said. “I told her that [her son] had been in an accident and that she should safely make her way to the site.”
He passed the phone to Fleming. He told his mum he had “f***** up”.
Police and fire-fighters turned up within minutes, followed by Fleming’s distraught mother.
The scene was horrific. And confused. It took rescuers a while to find one of the teenagers in the boot.
At 7.55pm, police released a short statement, which said they were attending a serious crash which “involved two vehicles”.
An hour later, Aoraki Area Commander Inspector Dave Gaskin confirmed “a number of people have lost their lives” and that just one car was involved. And even at that stage, said: “Early indications are that speed was a factor in the crash.”
One survivor was taken to hospital. The others never stood a chance.
News travelled fast. Police officers at the scene, extended the cordon to keep members of the public away.
There was anger and tears.
Snow was forecast. The All Blacks withstood a spirited Wallabies comeback. Rain started to fall.
By daybreak, you could drive down Seadown Rd and be unaware of the carnage hours before.
The cordons had been lifted; the scene cleared up.
The car, broken in two pieces, was trucked off to a salvage yard to be secured, to be examined later by serious crash investigators and Vehicle Testing New Zealand (VTNZ).
But if you stopped and looked there were signs, little indications, of the tragedy which had unfolded.
Beneath a disconcertingly buzzing powerline, tyre marks could be seen in the muddy grass verge. White spray-paint, daubed on the road by police experts, to track the car’s final movements, could be seen dotted up the road to the intersection with Meadows Rd.
And then there was the concrete power pole. It had some blue-grey paint smudged near its base. Otherwise, it remained upright, and solid. Fragments of the car’s bodywork lay scattered around the roadside. A speaker cover had flown across the other side of the road. A film of oil rainbowed puddles.
Soon, others came. They came and wept at the concrete power pole. Oblivious of the pouring rain, they stood without jackets and shook and sobbed. Parents, grandparents, a trembling aunty, and two cousins, all trying to come to grips with what had happened.
They just felt a numbness, they said.
One father, tears filling red eyes, paced up and down the country road where the five boys died, muttering, “Why? What a waste!”
Gasking called a press conference. Media were told to come to Timaru Police Station on North St at 10.15am for a 10.30am start.
When Gaskin arrived, he was taken aback by the sheer number of reporters and camera operators. He wasn’t sure the station had a room big enough for them all.
He found one right out back and stood in front of cameras to say: “Timaru’s a very small community … It is a tragedy and it will reverberate around our community for a long time”.
Gaskin confirmed five young men – all aged 15 and 16 – had died. All Timaru boys. He personally knew one family, for although Timaru is a decent-sized town of about 30,000, it’s really a small place, country New Zealand, where everyone knows everyone and are connected in some way.
Speed and alcohol were factors, he said.
“Cars are not toys,” he said.
“When not used properly they are extremely dangerous.”
By now, there was a steady stream of mourners – friends, family, upset locals – visiting the crash scene. Some slowed but drove by. Others parked and wandered around slowly.
Meadow Bennett just found out her cousin Niko Hill had died.
“You don’t believe it until you see it,” she says, fingering a piece of the car’s wreckage that she had taken from the scene as a memento.
“He’s just a young, sweet kid … he doesn’t need this. It doesn’t make sense to me. I just don’t get it.”
Kaleb Ewart visited the scene for some “peace of mind and see what happened” to his young mate Niko, who was “still young, still growing up”.
That Sunday afternoon, Fleming posted a photo of himself – his head injuries visible – from his hospital bed to a social media site with an apology.
“Hello everyone just wanted to say I’m not dead I am very very lucky to still be alive and I can’t believe what has happened and I am so so so sorry to the families that I have put in pain coz of stupid mistakes that I made that has costed five lives,” he says.
As the week went by, and funerals were planned and school assemblies and memorial services held, the tragedy was the talk of the town.
Conversation among a group gathered at a central Timaru restaurant for a family birthday celebration inevitably turned to the crash.
In hushed tones, they remarked, “Isn’t it awful” and “Well, I heard …” before merging into recollections of their own youths, being in cars without seatbelts, riding in boots, speeding, driving after drinking, and how “it was so different back then”.
There was sympathy for the first responders, the families, acknowledgement of the tragedy.
And then, like life, their conversation moved on.
There was a lot of that going on in Timaru – discussions around the “facts”, the shock, the horror, and then the inevitable moving on.
The community has reeled but the stronger feelings are fading.
For the families and friends of the boys, though, those are still raw, red, raging.
Some aren’t ready to talk to media. Some never will be. Others feel they have to, to honour their lost child.
Panelbeater Stephen Drummond said he should be painting Javarney’s car but instead he’s painting his coffin.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” he said. “A huge piece of my life has gone, just for a stupid accident, something that was obviously a game for the kids, or to the driver, and it’s over.”
The day after the tragedy, one of Javarney’s mates turned up. He was devastated, thinking he had lost one friend. When he found out, he’d lost five mates, he burst into tears.
“It’s gutting … It just goes round and round and round,” Drummond said.
“My heart go out to the families. I’m gutted for them as much as I am for my own family.”
He had to go to the hospital to identify his child.
“I just wished it wasn’t my boy,” Drummond said.
“No parent should have to bury their kid.”
Nothing, for Drummond and four other Timaru families, will ever quite feel normal again.
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