Ashburton deaths a ‘tragic, terrible accident’, says top cop

Cindy George and her three children – Pio, Teuruaa and Teiyzshwaun – could have been dead for up to a week before they were found in an Ashburton house.

Police have named the victims of an apparent accidental gassing as Cindy Tangipurunga George, 31, her daughter Pio Scarlet Jetejura Raukete, 5, and her sons Teuruaa Junior George, 3, and Teiyzshwaun Gordon Ricardo Nelder Kruz George, 2.

Police believe George and her children died from the fumes of a car left running in a garage to keep the battery “ticking over”.

An internal door to the house was open, but the garage door was closed. “It looks as though it has been a tragic, terrible incident,” Superintendent John Price said.

George had been looking after the Thomson St, Tinwald, house for her former partner’s family, who is also the father of her children. Family members found the bodies on Thursday afternoon.  George’s body was in the hallway. The children were found dead in the lounge where a television was still on. The car had run out of gas.

Superintendent Price told a press conference at 4pm on Friday that the bodies could have lain undiscovered in the house for up to a week. The bodies had been taken to a Christchurch mortuary. Autopsies would take place on Monday.

Price said investigators had “a fairly good idea” of the cause of the deaths but that could not be confirmed until the autopsies were completed.

“What we do know from the circumstances and reconstruction of the location is that it looks as though it has been a tragic, terrible incident.”

“We don’t have an exact period of death it could be a matter of days or up to possibly a week.” Police were working with the community to establish the movements of the family prior to them being discovered, Price said.

The family were making arrangements for a family service once the bodies returned to Ashburton, he said.  The house is likely to be returned to the family Saturday, while the street cordon will be removed Friday night.

GUARD OF HONOUR AS BODIES REMOVED

Officers, relatives and friends formed a guard of honour as the bodies were removed from the house on Friday afternoon.

Forensic investigators and a pathologist examined the scene before the victims were placed in two hearses and taken from the property about 2.20pm.

Scene guards would remain in place at the address overnight until a full scene examination was complete.

Thirty investigators were working on the inquiry.

Mid-South Canterbury Inspector Dave Gaskin said: “This is a tragedy and there are a number of questions we are looking for answers for. Our thoughts are with the family at this time.”

It was understood a short service was held inside the house before the bodies were removed.

Several officers then escorted a group of family and friends from the property. The group did not speak, but walked closely to each other, some with their arms around others for support.  “It appears this is a very unusual death,” Price said earlier.

FAMILY AND FRIENDS GRIEVE

George’s parents were “heartbroken” by the death of their youngest child, a relative said. Her parents were still in the Cook Islands, while some of her siblings were headed to Ashburton from Australia. “Her parents … are still heart broken as Cindy is the last born of the family,” the relative said.

Cindy George was one of 14 siblings of which 10 still alive. Her sisters were from Auckland and Palmerston North had travelled down to Ashburton. Price said the father of children was”completely traumatised by the whole event”. “He has tragically lost three of his beautiful children.

Ashburton Mayor Angus McKay said the “tragedy” highlighted the importance of the community to look out for one another. “It just shows that as we go about our daily lives, without being nosy, we should keep an eye on our neighbour and our neighbour’s belongings, it’s called neighbourhood watch.” He said there were no plans for a community service.

‘DEVASTATING AND SO UNFORTUNATE’

Ashburton Pacific Island community liaison Tony Vainerere said George was a “nice friendly outgoing person”. The children were “very nice”. He did not know their names.

“It’s very, very sad, it was devastating news … very devastating and so unfortunate,” he said of the deaths.

George, who is from the Cook Islands, worked at a meat works in Ashburton when she first arrived in the town about four years ago, but was now a stay-at-home mum, he said.  Vainerere described George as a “nice, friendly, outgoing” person.  He last saw George in the supermarket last week.

“The [Cook Island] community will always come together in situations like this. It’s always been a very tight knit community in terms of tragedies.”

CAR LEFT ‘TICKING OVER’

Canterbury district commander superintendent John Price said a car in a garage attached to the house in Thomson St, Tinwald, Ashburton, may have released carbon monoxide fumes that made their way into the house. The woman was minding the house for family friends, who returned home and discovered the bodies about 4pm on Thursday.

The woman’s body was found in a hallway between the garage and house. The car had an empty petrol tank and flat battery. It was possible that the car, which belonged to the house’s owners, had been turned on to keep the battery “ticking over”, Price said.

The bodies had not yet been formally identified, but the woman was understood to be the children’s mother. Their father, also living in Ashburton, was separated from the woman. He was being supported by police, Victim Support, and the wider community. “It’s been very hard for him,” Price said.

Price said the bodies showed “absolutely no trauma” and there was no sign of forced entry to the house. Police would conduct a thorough scene examination and “firm up” the identities and continue speaking to members of the community to establish events leading up to the deaths, he said.

A pathologist had taken blood samples from the bodies for toxicology screening. Formal identification would be carried out on Friday.

Canterbury area commander Dave Gaskin told Radio New Zealand that the family friends who discovered the bodies were “extremely distraught”.

About 30 police and forensic investigators were working on the case. A woman who lived in the house in front of the property where the bodies were found said the family were “very quiet”.

Nearby resident Rex Turnbull said an ambulance and several firefighters wearing breathing apparatus were at the scene when he arrived home about 4.30pm.

CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING

Carbon monoxide is an colourless, odourless and tasteless gas produced by partially burning petrol, wood or natural gas.

The gas hijacks red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body. This could result in sudden illness and death.

Symptoms of poisoning include tiredness, weakness, nausea, head and muscle aches, dizziness, confusion, a tight chest, and flushed appearance.

Sources of carbon monoxide include blocked chimneys, malfunctioning car engines and gas stoves, and burning fuels or running car engines in a confined space.

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