'It was going to be the best day of their life'

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 06/01/2013
balloon Hopkirk

Lower Hutt couple Stephen Hopkirk, 50, and Belinda Harter, 49, were amongst those who died in the fatal hot air balloon tragedy in Carterton.

balloon Alexis
Chrisjan Jordaan, aged 21 years of Wellington and girlfriend Alexis Still, aged 19 years, also of Wellington, who both died in the balloon crash.
balloon hopping
Balloon pilot Lance Hopping.

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One year on, Kirsty Johnston talks to four key witnesses to the Carterton balloon tragedy.

On the day the balloon went down, the sunrise was magnificent. It was so beautiful that photographer Geoff Walker was late for work because he kept pulling over to take pictures in the soft, early-morning light.

Walker had been documenting balloon rides for pilot Lance Hopping for the past four years. The morning of January 7, 2012 was unremarkable. The 10 passengers awaiting the ride in the field next to the Carterton's Paua World were happy and excited. For some the trip was a birthday treat, for others a long-held dream.

"It was perfect," Walker said. "It was going to be the best day of their life."

The balloon rose into the air at 6.38am. Walker had been following its quiet journey across the Wairarapa rolling farmland for 30 minutes, taking photos through a 400-millimetre lens, when suddenly he saw a flash of light and the whole thing burst into flames.

Walker immediately called 111. Then he picked up the camera again.

"I knew it was the right thing to do. It was all I could do. I knew these were the most important photos I'd ever have to take."

A kilometre away, Carterton fire chief Wayne Robinson was having a cup of coffee and preparing to chop some firewood when a call came through on his pager. It was the third of the year, already.

The message said simply: "Hot air balloon on fire" with an address, Somerset Rd, east of the township. On the way to the station, Robinson could see the pall of smoke rising above the fields.

He called for another truck, and a tanker. Four crews were already on their way.

Some of the Carterton firefighters were delayed because their brand new station was yet to get a generator. Because the electricity had been knocked out when the balloon-hit power lines, the siren failed to go off, Robinson said. Instead, they had to wait for everyone to read their pagers. "I'd say we lost about 30 seconds. It could have been better."

As soon as his crew arrived, he sped off towards the scene.

Meanwhile, Carterton Mayor Ron Mark and partner Christine Tracey were also at home preparing for the day ahead. It was summer holidays so the council was yet to get back to work.

The phone rang and, as soon as they heard the news, the pair knew they had to help.

"All we were told was that there had been an accident with Lance's balloon on Somerset Rd," Mark said.

They left home straight away.

Senior Sergeant Carolyn Watson spent the hour's drive from Castlepoint thinking, frantically, "What do we need to do?"

Carterton was her policing area. When the call came she'd been at the beach with the kids and had immediately jumped in the car.

An experienced police officer with 16 years under her belt, Watson had attended dozens of horrific incidents but none like this. As the death toll stood at 11 she knew it would be a large incident involving dozens of emergency workers.

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It wasn't until she arrived and picked up the passenger list that the crash became personal. On the roll were the names of two people she knew - the parents of her good friend, Fiona Rouse.

Des Dean, 70. Ann Dean, 65.

Robinson, the fire chief, arrived to be met by a member of the balloon's ground crew, the photographer Geoff Walker.

"He said to me, ‘See that pile of burning stuff in the paddock, there's nine people there'. I said: ‘You're joking.' He said: ‘None of them jumped out.' Training kicked in. Robinson and his crew cordoned the area and began to put out the fire. His second crew arrived with a paramedic on board and headed straight to two other bodies, the two who had jumped from the flaming basket as it struggled against the powerlines. A neighbour, Leanne Brown, had come across them first and tried to do CPR. Two nurses had also tried. But it was no use.

"There was nothing anyone could have done to change the outcome," Robinson said. Within half an hour, the firefighters had handed the scene over to police.

Battling through her emotions, Senior Sergeant Watson began to take control of the scene. She was put in charge of recovering the bodies and returning them to their families.

''WE NEVER LEFT THEM ALONE"

The work was terrible. Not only were they dealing with traumatised family members who had watched as the balloon plummeted, but also throngs of media, changeable weather and a scene so bleak that experts in disaster victim identification had to be flown in to help with the bodies.

"It was meticulous and backbreaking and hot and really, really difficult working conditions," Watson said. "That's probably something that people have no concept of."

The young couple who jumped were identified on the first day. Alexis Still, 19. Chrisjan Jordaan, 21.

On the second day, it began to rain. Watson said the team never gave up.

"We had staff there the whole time so [the victims] were never left alone. It was hard, but at the end of the day I know that if it was my parents I would have wanted someone to be there. Often there's a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in these situations, but in this I felt honoured and privileged to be able to do something for those families.

"I promised Fiona that I would get her parents back. And I'm proud that we did."

On day two, the eight other victims were identified and their names released. Those killed were balloon pilot Lance Hopping, 53 of Masterton; Howard and Diana Cox, aged 71 and 63, of Wellington; Desmond and Ann Dean, 65 and 70, of Masterton; cousins Valerie Bennett, 70, of Masterton, and Denise Dellabarca, 58, of Paraparaumu; Stephen Hopkirk, 50, and Belinda Harter, 49, of Lower Hutt; and Johannes (Chrisjan) Jordaan, 21, and Alexis Still, 19, of Wellington.

As the names were released, photographer Geoff Walker realised there was, after all, something he could do.

Before the flight he'd taken dozens of snaps of the passengers - Alexis Still with Chrisjan under the inflating balloon, her long hair streaming behind her; the Deans, with Des holding on to his hat in one hand and his beloved wife with another. Valerie Bennett, clutching a menu for the Wild Oats cafe where the group was to breakfast afterwards.

He gave the pictures to the families. "I didn't think about it at the time. But it ended up being really great. There were pictures of every victim and they were all happy. "What a privilege to be able to help people." His photos of the crash went to police. It's unlikely they will ever be made public.

In the weeks that followed, Mark attended a heartbreaking stream of funerals. "At that time the community were fantastic. They gave petrol vouchers, loaned vehicles, they cooked for an army. They really took those people into their hearts."

Despite the support, it was extremely challenging. "Attending so many funerals one after the other and seeing people's love laid out . . . it's very hard," he said.

"The funerals went from being total celebrations of two older people who lived and loved together to others that were just . . . unrestrained grief."

A year on, he says, there is still, at times, an overwhelming sadness. "It deeply affected some people in Carterton and it will forever."

FIRST ANNIVERSARY TOMORROW

Tomorrow, fire chief Wayne Robinson will attend the first anniversary service in Carterton with mixed feelings.

At first, Robinson said flashbacks of the balloon accident were haunting, with his crew suffering nightmares and sleepless nights.

"The hardest thing was that the families had been watching their parents and the balloon go down. There were sons and daughters and grandkids, all saw it."

But now, after several counselling sessions, Robinson feels like he - and his crew - are OK. He still thinks about the accident all the time but says it doesn't cause him to grieve in the same way as it had when it was still raw.

It remains the worst accident he's attended in 32 years of service. "I can still see it clear as day," Robinson said.

"And what I saw there I hope I never see again and I hope no-one else does either."

For the families of the victims, there is still a long road ahead. Although an interim report was released in May showing that Hopping, the pilot, had cannabis in his system and that the balloon may not have been airworthy, the final Transport Accident Investigation report will not come out until later this year. The coroner will also release a ruling.

A service will be held in Carterton tomorrow to remember the victims.

- Sunday Star Times

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