Balloon families welcome details

CALEB HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 31/07/2014

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Families of victims of a balloon crash that claimed 11 lives have been left shocked and frustrated by an eight-day inquest into the disaster - but they say it has been worth it.

The inquest in Wellington into the Carterton hot air balloon crash of January 7, 2012, which killed pilot Lance Hopping and his 10 passengers, wrapped up last night.

The passengers were Ann Dean, 65, Desmond Dean, 70, Valerie Bennett, 70, Diana Cox, 63, Howard Cox, 71, Denise Dellabarca, 58, Belinda Harter, 49, Stephen Hopkirk, 50, Johannes "Chrisjan" Jordaan, 21 and Alexis Still, 19.

Hopkirk's sister, Ruth McIntosh, had the inquest's final say, reading a moving statement on behalf of her mother, Merle, and the rest of their family.

Hopkirk and his partner Harter had "happy, fruitful lives" that should not be blighted by the "horrific way they died", she said. She praised the bravery of Hopkirk and other passengers, who tried to free the balloon from power lines, fought flames that broke out and, finally, helped Still and Jordaan jump from the basket.

McIntosh said Hopping had time to deploy the balloon's emergency deflation device, which would have dropped it from the height of the power lines, probably saving lives.

"Why he didn't we will never know," she said, before suggesting his habitual cannabis use, established during the inquest and the earlier Transport Accident Investigation Commission inquiry, may have impaired his decision-making.

Families at the inquest have indicated that among recommendations they want coroner Peter Ryan to make are mandatory training for passengers on the use of the deflation device, and CAA-administered random drug testing for commercial balloonists.

Afterwards Merle Hopkirk said she appreciated the inquest revealing new details about what happened. "Sometimes it shocked us, but I think they've done everything they can to make a difference, which is what we particularly want."

The strain of the drawn-out inquest process was evident yesterday morning, when the court registrar admonished members of victims' families for "cursing and swearing" during the previous session, dominated by carefully neutral testimony from Civil Aviation Authority officials.

CAA manager Chris Ford denied keeping Hopping's drug use out of a CAA health and safety investigation in order to avoid awkward questions about how the authority responded to complaints it had received about Hopping.

Earlier, asked why a report into the possibility of random drug and alcohol testing by the CAA, requested by Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee, had "not yet materialised", Ford said the CAA had not been formally asked by the Ministry of Transport for its position on the matter.

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In a statement after the inquest, CAA chairman Nigel Gould said it would consider any recommendations made by the coroner. "We are vigorously committed to putting our resources to work in the right places to help prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy."

Oversight of commercial balloon safety has changed considerably since the time of the crash, he said. Several measures that addressed the families' concerns were already in place.

The inquest ran for five days in May before being adjourned and resuming on Monday. The coroner said he would make recommendations to agencies such as the CAA and the ministry in about seven weeks.

- The Dominion Post

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