Daylight revealed a scene of heart-rending devastation this morning after a car left Nelson Road last night and crashed into part of the Taruheru cemetery, destroying or damaging up to 60 headstones.
The vehicle, driven by a young male, veered off the road at about the mid-point of the cemetery frontage at around 6.30pm.
The car went through part of the front barrier fence, demolished a hand-washing enclosure at an entranceway, hurtled through front-row headstones before rolling and crashing back through the boundary fence to come to rest on the grass verge by the road.
The path of devastation was spread over 30-40 metres.
The driver, the sole occupant of the vehicle, was taken to hospital by a passerby and was treated for minor injuries and discharged.
Police maintained a scene guard at the site overnight.
The shock and sorrow on the faces of family members and others who went to the cemetery this morning was plain to see.
“It's so very sad. It makes you want to cry all over again,” one woman said.
“I'm speechless,” said another person. “What a terrible and upsetting thing to happen. It's just incredible how much damage has been caused. It makes you wonder how on earth he (the driver) did it.”
One man had gone there to see if his grandparents' grave site was affected.
“My wife and I were so worried and then relieved to see that it was not the case. Our hearts go out to those people who have not been so fortunate. It's an awful situation.”
Pieces of splintered boundary fence, the remains of the wash enclosure, smashed headstones and graveside ornaments were scattered over a wide area.
Tairawhiti police area commander Inspector Sam Aberahama said “a significant number of headstones nearest to the road were damaged”.
“We appreciate that hearing this news will cause distress for those who have whanau buried at the cemetery.”
Police contacted Gisborne District Council staff last night.
“The council has been going through a process of identifying the headstones and will be contacting the whanau of the affected families,” Insp Aberahama said.
“We advise anyone with questions to contact the council on (06) 869-2447.”
Kaumatua Sir Derek Lardelli conducted a blessing at the site this morning before a careful clean-up by Recreational Services began.
GDC chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann and Mayor Rehette Stoltz were at the blessing.
“It's a devastating situation for the families involved and we will be contacting those people affected today,” Mrs Thatcher Swann said. “We've got a really good database on the cemetery which will help us identify where the damaged and destroyed headstones belong.
“We have pictures of the headstones in many cases.”
Mrs Thatcher-Swann said they would look at the cost of repairs once they had established the insurance situation.
Mayor Stoltz said it was heartbreaking to see the devastation.
“What made it even more sad was to see that the affected area is part of the baby section. I spoke to two whanau who were affected and they were speechless.
“One man was there at daybreak to see if his boy's grave was affected and luckily it was missed by a metre.
A couple she spoke to were heartbroken their baby's headstone was destroyed.
“Our thoughts are with the families affected during this upsetting time.”
Council acting liveable communities director De-Arne Sutherland said some of the damaged headstones were repairable.
“The sites affected are from the 70s and 80s and some include children. Staff are working through the archives to identify the next of kin. The damaged rows are the first three rows of block 30.
“Cemetery activities will continue as normal this week, however, we ask that any non-urgent inquiries please wait until next week.
“Our priority is to support families through this process.”
Once the affected headstones have been identified, a temporary “pou” or marker will be put in place at each site until headstones can be replaced.
Insp Aberahama said inquiries into the cause of the crash were ongoing.
“We have ruled out alcohol as a factor,” he said .
“The young driver will be summonsed to court on June 9 and he faces driving charges.”