Hot air balloon crash near Carterton kills 11

KIRSTY JOHNSTON, GREER MCDONALD, CLIO FRANCIS, BLAIR ENSOR AND MARK STEVENS
Last updated 21:08 07/01/2012

Balloon crash update

Fatal hot air balloon crash

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Balloon crash witness

11 killed in hot air balloon crash

Victims' families at cordon

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Grieving family and friends of the Carterton balloon crash victims have left flowers at the edge of the police cordon at the scene of the accident.

Eleven people died this morning in a fiery hot air balloon crash north of the Wairarapa town, in what police have described as a national tragedy.

Two of the eleven bodies are being removed from the scene of the crash. They will be taken to Wellington Hospital's mortuary. The other nine bodies will remain at the scene overnight.

The final moments of the doomed balloon flight before it exploded were caught by nine-year-old Carterton schoolboy Ryan Beckett.

"I saw the balloon then ran back inside to get my camera," he said. After taking the pictures of the balloon, Ryan put his camera down. Moments later it hit power lines.

On one side of a police cordon this afternoon investigators were sifting through ashes in a bid to learn what went wrong. On the other side tearful people arrived at Somerset Road carrying flowers.

With tears pouring from eyes covered by dark sunglasses, a man and two women placed flowers near the road sign, followed soon after by a woman on her own.

Police said the balloon was preparing to land in a paddock after a 45-minute flight when it hit wires on  a power line, causing sparking in the basket carrying the pilot and passengers.

"At this point, two of the 11 people on board, believed to be a male and a female, appear to have jumped from the basket,'' Wairarapa police area commander Brent Register said.

The balloon then made a sharp ascent, a fire ignited and the balloon plummeted into a paddock on Somerset Road, near State Highway 2.

Pilot Lance Hopping and five couples from the Wellington region have been confirmed dead by police, who have not yet released any names.

"This is a huge national, significant event. It's a tragedy as bad as tragedies get. Yes, it will affect our community here in the Wairarapa,'' Register said.

He promised a thorough investigation.

"We are continuing to work with our partner agencies, which include the Coroner's office, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Transport Accident and Investigation Commission, Dept of Labour, NZ Fire Service and Victim Support."

"We are still in the process of identifying each of the 11 people and notifying their next of kin and this process will take some time, given it requires the skills of expert Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) staff."

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Register said a police family liaison team had spent the day working with some of the families of those killed, providing them with support.

"Our thoughts are with them all as they come to terms with what has occurred this morning."

One couple who died in the accident received the ride as a Christmas gift from their children.

A witness who lives on Somerset Road said she saw the balloon catch fire and ran to help.

"The two women, sisters, were on the ground in the car following the balloon with their parents in it.

"They saw it fall out of the sky."

The husband of one of the women told the witness they'd bought the tickets as a gift.

"They were just crying. Inconsolable."

The women said she heard screaming and a "commotion" outside, but thought it was excited people on the ground.

"But it wasn't. They were screaming from the balloon."

TAIC has opened an inquiry into the crash.

Investigating officer Peter Williams said they had looked at the crash site but were yet to begin witness interviews.

The investigation could take up to a year, he said.

Register said the bodies of the victims would remain at the scene overnight.

"It's a very bad scene. Some of the bodies are very badly burnt," he said.

Emergency services arrived at the scene within three minutes. All passengers were found dead on arrival.

The two people who jumped from the balloon basket were about 200 metres from the crash site.

Nathan Guy, the duty minister, took the opportunity to pass on condolences to the families of the victims.

He said it was a tragedy for "all of New Zealand".

"There hasn't been a fatality or serious ballooning event since 1998 - about 14 years, transport officials have told me."

Guy described the scene as "horrific". He visited it this afternoon. Guy didn't want to talk about what he'd seen at the crash site.

Ron Mark, mayor of Carterton, said it had been a very trying day. He thanked all of those involved.

"We're a small community and a small town. We know everybody. We know the balloonists who live among us," Mark said.

"This tragedy has hit our community deeply."

BASKET IN FLAMES

Smiles and waves from those on board the dawn holiday flight over the peaceful town turned to screams as the balloon plunged to the ground in flames.

Early Morning Balloons released a statement this afternoon, saying it deeply regreted to advise ''there has been a tragic accident", involving the company.

"This tragedy will affect many families and our thoughts and sympathy lie with the families and friends of the passengers and pilot whose lives have been tragically ended," it said.

"Our hearts go out to those affected by this tragedy."

Several witnesses watched in horror as the sedate dawn flight went horribly wrong.

Apart from Erebus in 1979, it was the worst New Zealand air disaster since an NAC DC3 crashed into the Kaimai Range near Tauranga in 1963, when 23 died.

Vineyard manager Bevan Lambess said those on board had no chance - the balloon was too high for them to safely jump.

"From a distance I saw this basket, the side of it was in flames," he said.

"It looked like something was holding it down and I thought it was ropes but it was actually powerlines.

"The top of the powerline was on top of the basket. I got to the corner and it must have released itself somehow and burned through the wires - it just went straight up in the air and obviously the whole thing just went up in flames.

"I didn't sort of believe what I was seeing. I thought there was nothing they could do to get out of there - it was too high for them to jump. I thought for sure people were going to die.''

Neil Hickland and his wife Aurea, who live near the crash site, were having breakfast when they spotted the balloon out the window.

"[Aurea] said to me: 'It’s pretty close to the powerline.'

"Then she said, 'Neil, the basket’s on fire.'

"So I rushed to the window and sure enough it was. All of a sudden the balloon and basket shot straight up as if it had been given the full throttle. When it got up about 60 odd metres they were all screaming, you could hear them.

"One jumped out and then another, they were just black figures falling, not on fire. The blaze was really going and then it drifted south and then came southwest. Then it came towards our house and it dropped at least 30 metres then went plonk straight down.

"I went to call 111 but the power was off.

"I just remember Aurea screaming and she said: 'They'll all be dead'.''

A nurse who was one of the first on the scene risked her life trying to save the lives of the two who had tried to jump clear.

Jacqui O'Connor, 38, was at the Carterton Campground on holiday with her family when she saw the accident.

Arriving at the scene, she dodged live power lines in a bid to see if anyone had survived the fiery tragedy.

She said the balloon became "like a cartoon character" as it combusted and darted around the sky before crashing.

"We saw the balloon going up and then dropping and then the basket bursting into flames, then kind of going up again," she said.

"It was almost like a cartoon character, it was just combusting. Then it had this long thin tail of smoke out the back.
It was like something off the Road Runner [cartoon], it was quite freaky."

O'Connor, a nurse at Waitakere Hospital in west Auckland, and her nursing friend Annette jumped into a car and rushed to the scene.

"There was just ash on one side where the balloon was, and a good 100 metres away were two people."

A woman whose farm the two people who jumped landed in was doing CPR, and there were live powerlines strewn across the paddock.

O'Connor heard a woman about her age make a phonecall saying: "Mum and dad have been in a hot air balloon accident, they've hit power lines and they're dead."

The dead couple, believed to be from the Wairarapa, were aged in their 60s.

TIGHT KNIT COMMUNITY

Lance Hopping was safety manager for Balloons over Wairarapa, event organiser Jonathan Hooker said.

"He was very safety conscious," Hooker said.

"It's obviously tragic for balloonists and balloons everywhere. It's a very tight knit community. All the balloonists know each other."

Ron Mark said that "everyone knows everyone" in the town, and many people had lost friends.

"At this stage we're aware some of them are local people, from the Wairarapa and we fully expect there will be people from outside the district, as it is the holiday period," Mark said.

"Whoever the people are they will be well known in the community, widely known and they will be personal friends."

A large news media contingent has gathered at the edge of State Highway 2 but little of the accident is visible from the roadside.

The balloon flights leave at dawn to catch the calmer weather, and usually end with a champagne breakfast at the Wild Oats café.

Power was cut to about 3800 customers following the accident.

Powerco Chief Executive Nigel Barbour said the company’s thoughts were with those affected by the accident.

“We wish to extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who died in this morning’s tragedy,” he said.

Supply was cut around 7.20am, after the balloon contacted overhead lines. It had since been restored to all but two customers.

Powerco and its lines partner Tenix made the line safe for emergency services and would remain in attendance to assist.

- Stuff

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