Families' anguish laid bare at balloon inquest

03:18, May 16 2014
Alexis Still family
MISSING PIECE: Parents of crash victim Alexis Still, Allan and Vivienne Still with her two older siblings Ben, 22, and Emma-Jane, 24.

Weeping families have shared stories of lives shattered by the Carterton hot air balloon tragedy.

Coroner Peter Ryan has been hearing an inquest into the deaths of all 11 people on a hot balloon on January 7, 2012.

On board 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 Jordaan, 21, and Alexis Still, 19.

Pilot Lance Robert Hopping, 53, was later found to be a long term user of cannabis and had a level of THC - the active ingredient of cannabis - of two micrograms per litre of blood.

The daughter of Howard Cox, Sarah Scarlett, told the inquest about her father "who fought the monster under my bed when I was a child," and who was her protector as an adult.

She also spoke about her stepmother Diana Cox who was creative and giving.

ball std
TERRIBLE LOSS: Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, of Wellington and girlfriend Alexis Still, 19, pictured before the balloon took off.

Scarlett talked about how their lives were greater than their deaths but how she was unable to forgive the pilot after the shockingly horrific way they had died.

"If my father could have saved those people he would have," she said, to the sobbing of others in the public gallery.

Alexis Still and Chrisjan Jordaan, a young couple, would not have flown that day if they had known the pilot used cannabis and did not have a medical certificate, the inquest heard.

With her voice cracking, Still's mother Vivienne Still told the inquest about her talented intelligent, gifted, bubbly, daughter and the man she was in love with, Jordaan.

Jordaan leapt from the burning basket after the balloon hit power lines but before it began to burn and crash.

"If they had known or suspected that [pilot] Lance Hopping used cannabis or held a medical certificate they would not have flown that day.''

Vivienne Still told the coroner that the loss of Alexis was especially painful when they thought about what she might have given in the future, especially after her posthumous graduation from Massey University.

Some of the families involved want random drug testing for pilots in the adventure aviation industry.

Allan and Vivienne Still read a statement to the court asking for the coroner asking for the drug testing and that he put in place strong recommendations.

Vivienne Still said they were at court to speak for Alexis and showed a photograph of a noticeboard from Alexis' bedroom that read "Speak up for the people who have no voice."

Allan Still said they had had discussions about safety before the flight with Alexis, who told them that she believed Hopping was the safest pilot in New Zealand, but it was all untrue.

Their lawyer had earlier told the court what the families wanted.

Alastair Sherriff said if lessons were not learned and changes made to the adventure aviation tourism industry, these things are doomed to happen again.

They are seeking laws or regulations about random drug and alcohol testing for flight and ground crew, that pilots must be drug and alcohol free for up to 10 hours before a flight, that there be post incident testing, mandatory testing for pilots seeking medical certificates, that CAA processes ensure no pilot operates a balloon without a medical certificate and that there be mandatory training for first aid, use of fire extinguishers and emergency deflation systems.

Other countries have these regulations and the sky has not fallen in, Sherriff said.

Alexis Still's family also wanted the disaster victim identification procedures altered so that those like her who were recognisable can be allowed to see them and begin the grieving process earlier and so that no other family went through it.

"We just wanted to be allowed the opportunity to hold her,'' Allan Still told the coroner in a choked voice.

The inquest adjourned mid morning with evidence yet to be heard from the Civil Aviation Authority.  A further date for the inquest to resume will be set by the coroner.


Howard Cox
HOWARD COX: His daughter's hero.

The Dominion Post