Memories of balloon crash still raw

SEAMUS BOYER
Last updated 05:00 05/01/2013
Carterton balloon crash
TV ONE

TRAGEDY: Firefighters, ambulance staff and police next to the paddock where the burning balloon crashed outside Carterton.

balloon tragedy graphic
Google Maps Zoom
The path of the balloon and the place where it crashed.
Howard Cox gallery
REBECCA THOMSON/The Wellingtonian Zoom
Howard Cox, 71, of Wellington, died along with his wife, Diana.
Damon Searle
LOREN DOUGAN
DAMON SEARLE: The flames and the heat must have been terrific.
Megan Searle
LOREN DOUGAN
MEGAN SEARLE: I walked in the garden and there was a shoe at our gate.
Simon Irving
LOREN DOUGAN
SIMON IRVING: I was there to deal with those initial actions and to do them pretty well.

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On many days at least a car or two will slow to a curious crawl as they pass along Somerset Rd.

Those inside will look at the spots where the two "young ones" jumped from the ill-fated balloon, point at the long ago-fixed wires overhead, and imagine how the tragedy unfolded.

They might trace a path high above the road, turning their glances to a small area of paddock on the opposite side, before carrying on driving towards State Highway 2.

On other days a car will stop, and people get out and place flowers at the edge of the paddock where the balloon crashed to earth.

Sometimes, though rarely, people climb the fence and silently stand before what were once two patches of scorched earth - one for the balloon canopy, the other for the basket and its doomed cargo.

Twelve months after the crash that killed 11 people early on Saturday, January 7, little has changed physically on the sleepy rural road just north of Carterton, in Wairarapa.

The blackened earth might be gone and wooden fences now enclose the final resting places, so-to-speak, of the victims.

But the farms are just as they were, along with the high-voltage lines, the neighbours, and the paddocks that pilot Lance Hopping had skirted or landed in hundreds of times before.

However, for many of those intimately involved on that day, Somerset Rd will never be the same.

DAMON SEARLE can still hear the screams of those in the balloon moments before their deaths.

Mr Searle, 37, a dairy farmer, was milking cows with another worker across the road from the crash site when he noticed the balloon.

"We saw it go over and then we could see the top of the balloon going up and down, as if it were trying to land, and we thought it was strange."

Moments later he saw the balloon drift into the wires, causing them to arc, and the basket burst into flames.

"We ran up the track towards it but it was already on fire," he said. "The roar of the flames and the heat must have been terrific - there was nothing you could do. And the screams, that's something I'll never forget, I've never heard screaming like it."

A year later he still thought about the crash "all the time".

"Especially when I'm at work because I see it all day," he said. "You just think, 11 people died there, on the place I work."

He still questioned why Mr Hopping did not land the balloon earlier.

"You sort of think why? Why did it happen? There was a 10-acre paddock before those lines that he could have landed in."

"With gas bottles hissing and the crash site still smouldering, Sergeant Simon Irving assigned himself the grisly task of examining the wreckage.

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"My primary responsibility was A: to secure the scene, and B: to confirm that everyone on that balloon was dead," he said. "We knew that it was important to quickly do that, because people needed that information in a hurry."

Handed a passenger list, he knew exactly how many people were on board, but initially he and Sergeant Peter Rix could not tally up the bodies.

"The [situation report] that I got was that the two that jumped had been confirmed as dead. So there should have been nine in what was just a smouldering mass. We tried to count nine but we could only count seven." He secured the area by posting officers at both ends of Somerset Rd, while firefighters scoured paddocks for other survivors or bodies.

Mr Irving's actions were to prove the start of a year of police investigations, involving officers in New Zealand and overseas and hundreds of man hours.

A criminal investigation was immediately launched, as well as an investigation on behalf of the coroner.

Police are still completing their investigations, but are expected to start preparing for an inquest in the next few months. The inquest will likely be held after the final Transport Accident Investigation Commission report is issued midyear.

One year on Mr Irving still vividly remembers the day of the crash.

Having arrived early for his 7am shift, he had just settled down to have a quick cup of coffee and a read of The Dominion Post.

Moments later the first call came through, saying a balloon had been seen on fire. He initially thought the caller had mistaken the burners on the balloon for it being on fire.

"When another call came through right after saying the same thing, I knew that something was up."

He drove to the scene along with another officer in a separate car.

On arrival firefighters and ambulance staff were already there.

Family members of the victims and ground crew staff were also there.

Mr Irving said there was "much less chaos than you'd think". "I think everybody was pretty resolved by that point about what had happened.

"[The deaths] were pretty explainable because the families and ground crews had been following it all along. Other than the two that jumped the rest were in one place, and the families knew that and they could see that no-one could survive that."

Though he would never forget the crash, it did not affect him emotionally. "I was there to deal with those initial actions and to do them pretty well. It's just part of the job and the next day there were other jobs to concentrate on."

After hearing the initial news of the crash, Bob and Merle Hopkirk hoped against hope that somehow it would not be their son.

"We were at home waiting for him to come back when it came across the radio that there had been a balloon accident and that everybody had died," Mr Hopkirk said. "You sort of started hoping that maybe there were two balloons up that morning.

"Then they said that two [passengers] had jumped out and you thought maybe they were your loved ones, but then it turned out they had died as well."

The Hopkirks' son, Stephen, had been given the balloon ride as a 50th birthday present from his partner, Belinda Harter, who was also killed.

And Mr Hopping was due to get married to fiancee Nina Kelynack, with invitations to their wedding arriving in the mailboxes of guests that same morning.

For the Hopkirks, January 7, 2012, was supposed to be a happy day.

As well as being the date of Stephen's birthday, it was also Bob and Merle's 56th wedding anniversary.

Mr Hopkirk said the family would never forget the crash. "All sorts of things remind you of it. We've just finished selling Stephen's house and Belinda's house as well."

But despite the continuing pain, they were still getting by "all right". "I don't see it as good days and bad days, it's more good moments and bad moments."

FOR weeks after the crash Megan Searle was finding pieces of burnt wicker in her lawn and orchard - continuing reminders of the terrible event that took place over her fence.

Having been away with friends in Taranaki at the time of the crash, a shoe from one victim was the first thing she found on her return the next day.

"I walked in the garden and there was a shoe at our gate," she said. "It was just sitting there by the gate and it just really brought it home to me that it was real, that this was reality."

Mrs Searle, witness Damon's mother, lives just metres from where the balloon came to rest. The house the family had lived in for 20 years was suddenly on television around the world.

For a week after the crash police officers camped at the site, scouring the area for evidence. The nine bodies also stayed on site for several days.

During winter she decided to plant two liquidambar (sweetgum) trees on the two sections of what was once scorched grass from the balloon and the basket.

"It's always going to a place where a tragedy occurred, and I'd like to think that we'll look after the site."

AS president of the NZ Balloon Association, Martyn Stacey knows a lot about ballooning. But 12 months on he is still in the dark as to exactly how the disaster happened.

"I'm still trying to get my head around it like everyone else. We know there were no mechanical problems, my guess is that it was the result of a lot of little things going wrong at the same time." Mr Stacey had known Mr Hopping for about 15 years, describing him as a "really happy-go-lucky guy".

Mr Hopping had more than 1000 hours' pilot experience, and worked as safety officer at the Wairarapa Ballooning Festival, where Mr Stacey was event director.

He was "shocked and stunned" by the revelation Mr Hopping had traces of cannabis in his system, but was unsure what part, if any, it might have played in the crash.

On January 7, he received a phonecall at his Christchurch home, 10 minutes after the crash, he said.

He would spend the next few weeks juggling calls from balloonists and reporters all over the world.

There was no question the crash initially put people off ballooning, but demand was not long in picking up.

Also to blame for an initial downturn in customers was the handling of the investigation itself, he said.

In February, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission recommended urgent checks on the maintenance of all 74 balloons in the country. It was later revealed only 16 balloons were potentially not airworthy.

One year on from the second worst crash in ballooning history, - an Australian crash killed 13 in 1989 - Mr Stacey said nothing could rival the majestical thrill of an early-morning balloon ride. "Ballooning is a magical experience, and this hasn't changed that."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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