Volunteer firefighter Reuben Miller will never forget the night he pulled 15-year-old Sunmara Alexander from a crash-wrecked burning car.
An accident in the Port Hills, straddling Christchurch and Lyttelton, is not so unusual – Miller says it was the fourth or fifth he’d been called to in a matter of weeks.
But the hellish scene on an unusually mild night towards the end of November last year was like nothing he’d seen before.
There was so much smoke he couldn’t see the car or Sunmara – he could only hear the teenager pleading for help.
“She was stuck in the seatbelt and her legs were jammed. The car was on an angle.
“I couldn’t reach her legs but I was able to cut her out of the seatbelt. She never cried or screamed and was more worried about me.
“She told me when to pull and when not to and that’s how she managed to free herself. She would have been in unbearable pain but she was incredibly brave.”
The crash claimed the life of Sunmara’s sister, 17-year-old Tayla. Sunmara was taken to hospital where she fought horrific injuries. She succumbed a month later – dying in Middlemore Hospital on her 16th birthday.
A teenage boy who was a passenger suffered serious injuries and survived. The driver’s injuries were minor, he hasn’t been charged with any offence.
The aftermath still haunts Miller.
“It was probably the fourth or fifth accident in the Port Hills in a matter of weeks but this one was by far the most serious one – it had a huge impact on me.”
He is not the only one. The reverberation from that crash has spread through the small town of Ashburton, leaving unanswered questions and unfathomable pain.
‘I love you and be good’
When New Zealand shut down on March 25, so did Jason Alexander.
Tayla died instantly when the car she was in went over a bank and burst into flames on Summit Rd about 11pm on November 27 last year.
Sunmara suffered extensive burns and died a month later. The battle to save her had meant multiple amputations due to infections.
Jason’s last words to his only children were: “I love you and be good.”
The Covid-19 lockdown served only to amplify his grief. That has been compounded by delays in the justice system. It will be five months tomorrow since the accident, but no charges have been laid. Jason fell into a deep depression and thought about taking his own life.
“I missed the girls so much I wanted to join them,” he says.
He has had no contact and no apology from the driver – despite Jason making it clear he forgave him.
“I didn’t want him to go to jail for a silly mistake. He is young and is already going to have a lot to deal with for the rest of his life.
“Anger won’t bring them back. The boy said he was going to Sunmara’s funeral – but he was a no-show. I don’t hate him but I understand why he hasn’t made contact. I think he is really scared.”
The absence of charges leaves a sense of injustice. It also leaves Jason still seeking answers as to what happened the night that he lost his children.
“Tayla was thrown out of the car,” he says. “I wonder if she took the seat belt off and waited so she could open the door and jump out. She would have been protecting her sister – that’s Tayla.”
Law Professor Chris Gallavin from Massey University believes “someone has dropped the ball” in the investigation.
That, he says, is the only reason for such a delay in any charges being brought.
“Under normal circumstances for any case, let alone the seriousness of this case, you would not expect the police to have taken the months they have taken to decide whether to charge or what the charges are.
“At the very least one would expect the victim’s family would be kept up to date with where the prosecution or investigation was at. So in the absence of any explanation as to a delay in the toxicology, or an examination of the crime scene, or interviewing of witnesses – in the absence of that and the only conclusion people can draw is that a ball has been dropped by the police in this case,” Gallavin said.
Detective Jeff Brown, the officer in charge of the investigation, indicates that is not the case.
The delay is partly due to his being on leave and partly due to his involvement in a homicide case.
He is also waiting on a crash report and needs to consult with his superiors to determine what, if any, charges there should be.
He says an investigation like this typically takes three months, but the circumstances, in this case, are unique.
Brown is another upon whom the lasting impact of the crash weighs heavily. He is juggling the feelings of a grieving father with the future of a young man.
“We don’t want to make a mistake on this one. I don’t want to do Jason wrong, so we have to make sure we get enough consultation about what the appropriate charge is.
“If we charge too low, we will do a disservice, if we charge too high we might lose the whole thing, so we have to get the experts involved. It’s not ideal but it’s not unusual,” he says.
“Alcohol wasn’t an issue but we are waiting for the crash report to determine the speed, which is the crux of the matter.
“The driver might have done something stupid and now his life has changed in a way he never predicted. It’s a really unfortunate situation.”
Thoughts are with Jason
The driver is just 19. He and his family are struggling with the aftermath of decisions made on that November night.
The teenager’s uncle, who raised him for three years, says his first thoughts are with Jason Alexander.
“I can’t begin to imagine what it is to lose one daughter let alone two. I want him to know that within our family there are hearts that ache like his even though my nephew has been unable to convey this.”
The boy’s father “dropped dead suddenly” when his mother was only a few weeks pregnant.
“Life has dealt him some pretty sad blows, he never knew his dad and that affected him. We took him into our family when he was 14 and treated him like one of our sons but you can only do your best.
“I am worried he is overloaded right now and I would hate for anything to happen to him.”
The uncle has since been in touch with his nephew who he said was “remorseful and deeply sorry. He would like to reach out to Jason but has been advised against it by the police.”
The Herald on Sunday has chosen not to name the teenager ahead of any possible legal proceedings.
“He is a lovely, lovely kid actually, very clever, sensitive and caring,” says the uncle. “But the blows he’s had in life have left their mark. And when problems happen and they are usually big his response is to run.”
Other victims of what happened are less forgiving.
Ashton Lamborn was Tayla’s best friend after the pair met at Ashburton High school.
Lamborn was the last person to hear from Tayla minutes before she died.
In a text, she wrote: “Bro, I am going to die tonight. X. I haven’t gone so fast around Port Hills before.”
Lamborn replied, “Oh my god Tayla.”
Lamborn says the driver was known as a “boy racer.”
“I’m not sure what I would do if I saw the driver,” she says. “It would depend if my anger takes over or if I stay calm.
“He is still living his life and that’s not fair. He hasn’t been charged or taken any responsibility for what’s happened.”
Her anger is mixed with sadness.
“I miss Tayla’s empathy and kindness and she understood people before she judged them. That was one thing I learned from her. I never used to be like that. Tayla was beautiful and warm.”
Josh Stoliker is another struck by the ripple effect of the crash.
The student, studying Mathematics and Japanese at Canterbury University, had recently broken up with Sunmara after a year-long relationship but the pair had remained close.
Shortly before the crash, Stoliker had an argument with Sunmara which he cannot let go.
“I feel a lot of guilt and am angry at myself for what I said,” he says. “I still think about her she has left a huge hole in my life. Sunmara was one of a kind – funny, very joyful and colourful. “
He was at Middlemore hospital with Sunmara the day she turned 16 and the night her life support was turned off.
“The first time I saw Sunmara she was unrecognisable. She looked like a puffer fish – her face was blown up and swollen. Her face was bandaged to heal the burns if she was to recover. Her feet were absolutely black like charcoal. She had so many operations and each time I saw her she would be missing a finger or her arm.
A few weeks after Sunmara’s death Stoliker says he tried to end his life.
“I was struggling. This whole thing has been traumatic – losing two friends, two sisters, has hit me like a train.”
‘Five months … no charges laid’
Jason Alexander says his life has been “wiped out”.
Tayla was a “mother hen” to Sunmara – they were close in life and in death and are buried together at the local cemetery. Jason visits them every day. Their brother, Dallas Thomson, is also a frequent visitor.
“Tayla always put others before herself and Sunmara was a fun-loving rebel,” says Jason.
“It guts me that five months have passed and there are no charges laid. I want the driver to know it’s not just my life he has ruined but so many others through his actions. My girls were such a big part of me and now and I have an empty hole. I just want us to be together again.”
But his biggest fear – compounded by the slow wheels of justice – is that his daughters have been forgotten.
“I didn’t want them to die for nothing, I also don’t want other parents to go through what I am going through.”
He became determined to make a difference – and to help save other lives.
His friend Kelly Foster created a petition directed at the Christchurch City Council, the Transport Agency and Parliament.
Last month, the council and NZTA agreed to spend $20.5 million dollars on road safety improvements including guardrails for two Port Hills roads.
It can’t bring back Tayla and Sunmara. But it is something, for Jason, that shows they are not forgotten. They are not forgotten, either, by Ashton Lamborn who learned from Tayla not to judge others. They are not forgotten by Josh Stoliker who will remember the joy and colour Sunmara brought to his life.
And they are not forgotten by Ruben Miller.
Last month, he drove to Ashburton to meet Jason and let him know how gutsy Sunmara was as she fought to free herself from the car.
“I was the last person she ever talked to – the dad never got that chance and being a parent myself I would want to know that.”