Witness to balloon horror ends silence

CALEB HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 26/05/2014
Clayton and Leanne Brown
CALEB HARRIS/Fairfax NZ

RECOGNITION NEEDED: Clayton and Leanne Brown at their Somerset Rd home. The balloon was caught on high voltage wires on their boundary.

balloon hopping
Balloon pilot Lance Hopping.
Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, and Alexis Still
LOVE LOST: Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, and Alexis Still, 19, both from Wellington, just before the fateful balloon flight.

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After looking into the eyes of four men fighting to save fellow balloon passengers before all 11 died, a witness is convinced they deserve bravery awards.

Sitting stunned on January 7, 2012, after the Carterton balloon tragedy unfolded above her, Leanne Brown promised herself she would never talk publicly about the things she saw. "It's something private for these people who I saw in their last moments."

Now, disappointed that those passengers' bravery was not highlighted in last week's coronial inquest, she has decided to break her silence.

Brown was not asked to give evidence at the inquest, despite being one of the accident's nearest witnesses. She tended Chrisjan Jordaan and Alexis Still, who died in her paddock after leaping from the balloon while it was caught on powerlines beside her home, before it ignited, broke free then crashed nearby. The other eight passengers and pilot Lance Hopping were also killed.

Brown was outside her Somerset Rd home when the balloon passed low overhead. Seeing it caught on high voltage wires on her boundary, she stood below, some 15 metres away, trying desperately to think of how to help.

She saw passengers Howard Cox and Desmond Dean beside Hopping, trying to help pull the wire free. Brown thinks they must have climbed into Hopping's separate compartment to do so, moving closer to the obvious danger.

"At any point they might [have been] electrocuted; that takes great bravery," she said.

There was a "flash of white light" as electricity arced, igniting the basket. The men saw the flames but kept working: "The look on their faces wasn't panic, it was one of determination."

Cox, Dean and Hopping leaned out, trying to beat out the flames. Then she saw all three men die.

She heard passenger Stephen Hopkirk giving directions calmly, and saw him push his partner Belinda Harter, Dean's wife Ann, Cox's wife Diana, Still, Jordaan and fellow passengers Valerie Bennett and Denise Dellabarca away from the blaze.

He shielded them and stamped on flames, she said. "I yelled out, ‘My God, your only hope is to jump'."

Dialling 111 as the balloon slid along the wire, she saw Still lifted on to the basket's edge, hesitate, then leap. She believes Hopkirk and Jordaan lifted her before Jordaan also jumped, and that Jordaan got caught up before Hopkirk freed him.

Hopkirk looked at Brown as the balloon broke free. He waved once and then died, she said.

"He could have jumped out and saved himself, but he didn't."

She included Jordaan among the heroes, for helping Still before himself.

Cox, Dean, Hopkirk and Jordaan died as "true men" and deserved bravery awards, she said.

To provide a welcoming space for grieving relatives who would park nearby to weep, Brown and husband Clayton opened Wallowing Heights farm park a year after the tragedy.

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"A lot of children whose parents or grandparents died up there came to the open day and got on horses there under those wires and rode around . . . this has been very healing."

Hopkirk's mother, Merle, was not surprised her son was described as a hero.

"Stephen has always been quick-thinking, brave and selfless."

Her husband Robert died last year without seeing his son's courage recognised. "[Robert] was so proud of him."

The inquest was adjourned last week.

- The Dominion Post

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