Balloon trip a 50th birthday present

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 07:53 10/01/2012
Belinder Harter and Stephen Hopkirk

'INSEPARABLE': Belinder Harter and Stephen Hopkirk.

Howard Cox gallery
REBECCA THOMSON/The Wellingtonian Zoom
Howard Cox, 71, of Wellington, died along with his wife, Diana.
Carterton balloon crash
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
Investigators at the scene of Saturday's balloon crash in Carterton.

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A Wellington man killed in the Carterton air balloon crash died on his 50th birthday, after being bought tickets by his partner, who also died in the accident.

Stephen Hopkirk, described by his family as an easy-going man with a kind heart, was given the early-morning hot-air balloon ride as a surprise from partner Belinda Harter to celebrate his 50th birthday.

His parents, who were waiting for the balloon to land so they could wish their son a happy birthday, did not get to embrace their "real Kiwi guy".

The Early Morning Balloons flight became tangled in powerlines as it began to descend about 7.30am on Saturday. The basket caught fire and it crashed to the ground in flames, killing all 11 on board.

Mr Hopkirk's sister, Ruth McIntosh, said her brother and recent partner Ms Harter had just returned from a mountainbiking trip in National Park when Ms Harter surprised him with the hot- air balloon ride - something he had always wanted.

"He and Belinda were inseparable; together they enjoyed a whirl of outdoor activities," Ms McIntosh said in a statement. "They lived together in Korokoro and had bought a bus, planning to put their jobs on hold and go exploring."

Her brother had been deeply devoted to his late wife, Pam, she said, caring for her during a long illness.

"He was the one his family and friends called on to help them and he never said no . . . a real Kiwi guy - quiet and unassuming, but strong and determined."

The fateful day of January 7 had always been a special one for the Hopkirk family, Ms McIntosh said.

"The day is Stephen's parents' wedding anniversary; they have been happily married for 56 years. Stephen also shared his birthday with a nephew. Now it will also be known for the day he died. [He was] an amazing son, brother and friend who will be greatly missed."

On his Facebook page yesterday, Ms Harter's son James - a championship table tennis player - posted a heartfelt tribute to a mum he described as a "huge support and role model" throughout his life.

"I am just so grateful for every second that I got to spend with this amazing woman, I loved her with all my heart. But now all that's left are the memories which I treasure deeply," he wrote.

"Her and Stephen will forever be an inspiration to me and it's evident they've not only touched my heart but the hearts of many.

"I guess it's natural to sit back and wish they could have been around for longer but, hey, life's not fair, and I suppose all that's left to do is cherish and be grateful for the times I spent with them. I love you Mum and I'll never stop missing you guys."

Ms Harter, 49, had trained as a nurse at Hutt Hospital between 1980 and 1983, before working in the neonatal unit at Wellington Hospital. She returned to Hutt Hospital as bed manager and had been a gynaecological nurse since May 2007.

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In an email to staff, Hutt Hospital acting chief executive Peter Kennedy described her as a dedicated nurse who showed real care and empathy for her patients.

"Belinda was a lively, vivacious nurse and colleague with a love of life, which she lived to the full.

"Her support for her colleagues as social secretary helped to keep the team going when under pressure."

Mr Hopkirk grew up in a large family with one brother and three sisters, and attended Naenae College before graduating from Victoria University with a botany degree. He worked for IBM in Petone for many years.

IBM external relations manager Elaine Koller said he was a long-standing employee who was held in high regard by colleagues and clients. "Our thoughts and condolences are with Stephen's family at this very difficult time."

Diana Cox, 63, who also died in the crash with husband Howard, has been described as an "absolutely delightful person".

Workmate Ailsa Cornell from the Physiotherapy Acupuncture Association of New Zealand said Mrs Cox was a woman with great passion and a zest for life.

"Diana was an absolutely delightful person. She was interested in all sorts of things and always had a new project on the go.

"She was such a multi-talented woman who could do all kinds of things. She was always in demand for her sewing skills, but was just as comfortable mucking around in the garden."

Howard Cox, 71, was a property developer who overcame prostate cancer in 2010.

Their son Jeremy took part in Movember to raise money for prostate cancer research after the diagnosis. Now based in Australia, Jeremy was expected to return to New Zealand yesterday to farewell his parents with his sister.

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