Balloon crash: 'It's burst into flames and they're dead'

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Emergency services attend the scene of the fatal crash. Photo / APN
Emergency services attend the scene of the fatal crash. Photo / APN

Eleven people have died in what is the worst New Zealand aviation disaster since the Erebus crash in 1979.

Two Auckland based nurses who attended the crash described the distressing scene as family members waiting for their loved ones to land witnessed the accident.

Family members were making frantic calls to relatives saying: "Come now, we need you. Mum and dad have been in a balloon accident. It's burst into flames and they're dead".

Police say it will take forensic experts a number of days to formally identify those involved.

Two of the eleven bodies are being removed from the scene of the accident. Wairarapa Area Commander Inspector Brent Register says the two bodies are being taken to Wellington Hospital's mortuary. The other nine bodies will remain at the scene overnight.

NATIONAL TRAGEDY

In a statement from the Governor-General, Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, he expressed his condolences to the victim's families and friends.

"It was with a profound sense of both shock and disbelief that I learnt of the ballooning tragedy in the Wairarapa that claimed the lives of 11 people earlier today. A tragedy on this scale means many people, both in Carterton and elsewhere in New Zealand, will be grieving for those who died."

Local police have described the accident as "a tragedy as bad as tragedies get".

All of the hot air balloon's passengers - five couples and an experienced pilot - were killed in the fiery crash near Carterton.

Police said they received "around half a dozen calls from residents in the Somerset Road area reporting a hot air balloon in difficulty" around 7.30am.

Wellington District Commander Superintendent Mike Rusbatch said at this stage it appears a fire has ignited on board, causing the hot air balloon to crash in farmland close to the Clareville showgrounds.

Police said they are working with a number of agencies including the Fire Service, the Coroner's office, the Transport Accident and Investigation Commission, Civil Aviation Authority and the Department of Labour, to determine the cause of the crash.

PILOT A 'TOP BLOKE'

The pilot, believed to be Ballooning NZ director Lance Hopping, was described as a 'top bloke' who would do anything for the community. He was a popular member of the Carterton community and one of the most experienced balloonists in the country.

He has over 10,000 hours of commercial ballooning experience and is the safety manager of the popular Balloons Over Wairarapa event, according to organiser Jonathan Hooker.

The balloon is believed to be a Cameron A-210, which can carry ten passengers plus one pilot. The balloon is one of the largest in New Zealand.

The company which owns the balloon, Early Morning Balloons Ltd, released a statement saying "This tragedy will affect many families and our thoughts and sympathy lie with the family and friends of the passengers and pilot whose lives have been tragically ended."

BALLOON RIDE TICKETS CHRISTMAS GIFTS

Aurea Hickland lives over the fence from where the balloon landed, and saw the incident unfold.

"It was terrible," she said.

"We were just having breakfast and we have big windows that face out onto where the balloon was coming down.

"I got up to have a cup of tea and I looked out the window and saw the balloon coming down.

"But then it started to shoot up in the air.

"And I said to my husband 'Oh no the basket's on fire, the basket's on fire'.

"And it shot up in the air, which I guess was because of the heat, and we saw two people jump out and everyone was screaming - the screaming was just terrible - and then when the canopy went up in flames it just dropped.

"It was going up at a very big rate, I wouldn't like to say how high but it was a very long way up.

"We saw the two people jump and I said to Neil 'They won't survive', it was just awful."
"Neil ran out and then came back with two of the family members [who were waiting for the balloon to land] and one was saying that they had bought the tickets for their parents for Christmas.

"They just kept saying 'How are we going to tell our children."

Mrs Hickland has lived on Somerset Rd since 1996 and said she and her husband Neil had watched the balloons "hundreds of times".

"They're always flying over or landing near the neighbour's place - we don't really take any notice of them anymore."

"LONG STREAK OF FLAMES"

One witness described flames bursting from the balloon's basket as it hit the ground.
David McKinlay, a Hornesberry St resident, said "It looked as if he had tried to take it higher. It was just flames and it was just a long streak of flames, probably about 10 metres long. The impact must have been terrible."

Mr McKinlay, who called 111, saw the flames shooting out of the basket of the dark blue and maroon striped balloon.

After alerting emergency services, he said the balloon was 150 metres in the air and dropped quickly, describing it as "just a sheer flame as it hit the ground."

"It came down like a bloody rocket and then there was a big bang," he said.

A New Plymouth man trout fishing in the area at the time said he saw the balloon drop from the sky.

Kevin Curd did not see the balloon catch fire because it dropped behind a hill.

"I said to my mate that's strange that a balloon disappears like that. Within five seconds it was blue grey smoke."

"It shot down but there were no flames then."

Mr Curd described it as unbelievable and did not realize what he was seeing at the time.

CONDITIONS "PERFECT" FOR BALLOONING

Resident Don Cunningham told TVNZ he saw the balloon make what appeared to be a controlled descent, about half an hour after it took off.

"Conditions were perfect. There is hardly any wind so it wasn't moving very quickly," he said.

"I saw the canopy going down and then I heard some screaming and shouting and then suddenly a big pall of smoke."

Mr Cunningham said emergency services were quickly on the scene and the fire was extinguished shortly after.

Carterton Mayor Ron Mark told TVNZ those on board were a mix of locals and visitors.

POWER CUT TO CARTERTON RESIDENTS

"The power went out at our place in Carterton," said local Bella Biggs.

"They hit a power pole. Power has only just come back on."

Powerco chief executive Nigel Barbour said around 3,800 customers lost power after the hot air balloon collided with overhead wires around 7.20am. Power has since been restored to all but two customers.

"We wish to extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who died in this morning's tragedy," Mr Barbour said.

NO FLY ZONE OVER CARTERTON

Superintendent Rusbatch said a disaster victim identification team is heading to the scene to begin the process of identifying the bodies.

"This is an absolutely tragic incident and our thoughts are with the families of the deceased. We are in the process of notifying next of kin however we will not be releasing any names until all next of kin have been advised.

"We also have a number of police staff who are working with the families of the deceased to provide them with the support they need at this very difficult time."
A no fly zone is also in place at the scene.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee has expressed his condolences on behalf of the Government to the families and loved ones of the victims of this morning's tragedy.

"We are deeply sorry to learn of this tragic accident and our hearts go out to those who are now mourning the loss of life," Mr Brownlee said.

He said rules for the commercial operation of hot air balloons were part of a recently completed review into adventure tourism in New Zealand.

"Experts will be looking to learn any lessons from the investigations which have begun today which can help improve safety for others in the future," Mr Brownlee said.

Police say they have no details yet of what caused the early morning crash in clear, bright conditions with minimal wind. The region is well known for its hot air ballooning.

The accident is the worst New Zealand aviation disaster since the Erebus crash in 1979.

TOUGH DAY FOR CARTERTON

Carterton Mayor Ron Mark said it was his toughest day.

"It's certainly the hardest time that I've seen in my time back home.

"And it's not just Carterton it's also the whole of the Wairarapa.

"For me as the mayor of Carterton I'm conscious of supporting the wider services personal, police and fire, because it's obvious that they're going to know people who were on that balloon."

He said that iwi representative Mike Kawana and Reverend David Cole had both been invited onto the scene to bless the site of the crash.

Carterton District Council was supporting police and fire staff who were using the Carterton Fire Station as an operations base, and the Carterton Events Centre would be made available to families of the victims.

"It's a small tight knit community... it's very tragic for New Zealand but for a little community like ours it hits home," he said.

"The community is bracing itself for names that it knows."

- NZ HERALD STAFF/ APNZ / WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

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