The tragedy occurred when a Fiat minibus, hired by a group of Italian tourists, collided with an orange Nissan X-Trail on the A96, around three miles south of Keith in Moray, at about 11:45pm on Thursday.
Three people in the 4x4 died at the scene. The two women, aged 69 and 70, and a 63-year-old man were all from the local area and had been out socialising in Keith before the fatal crash.
Four tourists were freed from the minibus wreckage. One woman remains in a critical condition in hospital with two males, including the driver, treated for injuries. A young boy, aged just three, is being “well cared for”. His physical injuries are not thought to be serious. Police thanked those who stopped their cars to try and help the casualties with two eyewitnesses to the immediate aftermath of the accident describing the scene as “horrific”.
Sam Donald, 17, and his friend Marcus Murray, 16, had just dropped a friend off at a nearby farm when they heard a loud bang from the main road.
They were first on the scene and made the 999 call.
Mr Donald said: “We were just yapping away and we heard a bang. Straight away, my friend said ‘car crash’ and we came down to the main road to see what had happened. When we got to the end of the road, you could tell it was bad.
“We were just there in a minute and the first people on the scene. I phoned 999 and the man on the other end was asking me to talk through what I could see.
“That felt like forever. I was only on the phone for five minutes but it felt like at least half and hour.
“What I saw was horrific. To be honest, I don’t want to speak about it. I can’t speak about it. I have never seen anything like that before in my life.”
Visibly shaken, Mr Donald returned to the scene yesterday to lay flowers on the roadside.
“I just wanted to show my respects to them,” said Mr Donald, a mechanic.
In the minutes following the crash, around 12 members of the public stopped their cars to administer first aid and offer comfort at the roadside.
An air ambulance and HM Coastguard helicopter landed on Seafield Park to attend the scene.
Hospitals in Inverness, Elgin and Aberdeen were put on standby with Police Scotland now working with authorities in Italy to inform relatives of the crash.
The Moray area is increasingly busy with tourists drawn by distilleries, Elgin’s cashmere and the beaches.
Richard Lochhead MSP said the community would be “shocked” by the tragedy.
He said: “So sorry to hear about such an awful tragedy locally. My thoughts are with everyone affected and thanks to emergency services.” The Scottish Police Federation said in a statement posted on Twitter: “The utter horror facing police officers responding to the tragic multiple fatal road collision on the A96 last night is near impossible to comprehend.”