Final moment of balloon crash caught on camera

Last updated 12:50 13/05/2014
Coroner Peter Ryan

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A photographer recorded the final moments of a tragic balloon crash that took 11 lives in Carterton.

Professional photographer Geoffrey Walker was part of the ground crew on January 7, 2012 and usually took photos that could later be bought by the passengers.

He took photos of the tragedy as it unfolded and explained what he saw to a coroner's inquest in Wellington.

The passengers who died were Valerie Zillah Bennett, 70, Diana Madge Cox, 63,  Howard Cox, 71, Ann Lynette Dean, 70, Desmond Athol Dean, 65, Denise Dellabarca, 58, Belinda Elisabeth Harter, 49, Stephen Robert Hopkirk, 50, Johannes Christoffel Jordaan known as Chrisjan, 21, and Alexis Victoria Still, 19.

The pilot was Lance Robert Hopping, 53. He was found to have levels of THC - an active ingredient in cannabis - of two micrograms per litre of blood.

He was later found to be a long term user of cannabis.

He had often worked with Hopping and was only aware of one other accident where a woman broke a wrist on landing.

Walker was taking photos when he saw a flash and thought someone on the balloon had taken a flash photo.

He said he quickly realised something was very wrong and he kept taking photos.

He said the balloon hit the powerlines and the basket was quickly ablaze.

"It was full of flames and I couldn't make out figures, flames were surrounding them,"

Walker said the ropes began to burn and the flame reached the envelope which burnt, deflated and dropped.

He was also asked by police to take photos at the scene.

Hopping's long time friend Bruce Miller, who used to ride motorcycles with him confirmed that he knew Hopping used alcohol and cannabis and had seen him do it.

Miller said the night before the accident he had been in a club with Hopping, who he called Hoppy, that he saw him have one beer before going home.

"I did not see him use alcohol and drugs the day before a ride or a flight,"

He said Hopping was safety conscious.

Under questioning by lawyer Alastair Sherriff, Miller said he thought Hopping had used cannabis for 10-15 years but would not consider one cannabis cigarette a big deal.

To Coroner Peter Ryan he said he thought Hopping used cannabis weekly.

He had flown with Hopping more than once.

The granddaughter of a couple on the balloon that caught fire and crashed in Carterton killing 11 people could see the pilot frantically trying to remove tangled powerlines from the basket.

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Aimee Brewster, granddaughter of Ann and Desmond Dean, had gone with her mother Bronwyn to see her grandparents' balloon ride on January 7, 2012.

She told a coroner's inquest which started yesterday into the deaths of the pilots and 10 passengers that the 33,000 volt power line was caught on the basket which led to a flash of light and a crackling sound before the power line snapped.

Brewster said she could hear people screaming as the basket caught fire and saw someone come out of the basket.

She said the basket drifted over a paddock at Somerset Rd and the flames went up the ropes.

"The balloon part caught fire and burnt really fast.  The basket came down quickly."

She said she heard the impact.

Brewster also said she spoke to police some months later about seeing Hopping smoking on the morning of the flight.

She did not think anything about it at the time.  She could not smell it and did not think Hopping was acting oddly.

The inquest is today expected to hear from ground crew from the day of the accident and from forensic scientists.

- The Dominion Post

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