Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the NZME. News Service office in Wellington.

Carterton balloon passengers tried to save others

Photo / File / Thinkstock
Photo / File / Thinkstock

Passengers on the ill-fated balloon flight which crashed near Carterton bravely tried to save others from the flames, the coroner heard on final day of the inquest today.

Ten passengers and pilot Lance Hopping died after their balloon became tangled in powerlines, caught fire and plummeted into a field just outside of Carterton on January 7, 2012.

Today, the final person to give evidence was Ruth McIntosh, who spoke about her brother Stephen Hopkirk, who was on board with his partner Belinda Harter.

A witness who saw the crash called Ms McIntosh's parents a few weeks later to describe the heroic actions of their son.

"She said that Stephen shielded the women as the fire ignited," Ms McIntosh said.

"He endeavoured to douse the flames with such determination, that he did not give up until the force of the fuel-fed fire overcame him."

Other passengers also demonstrated bravery, Ms McIntosh said.

They included the men who tried to force the basket from the cable, the young people who jumped, and those who sacrificed themselves to try to help the young couple.

She said the witness believed Mr Hopping would have had time to initiate an emergency procedure of pulling a rip cord to deflate the balloon and she did not know why he did not.

Mr Hopping made "grave errors of judgement" during the last moments of the flight, as well as being a habitual cannabis user and allowing his medical certificate to lapse, Ms McIntosh said.

"Mr Hopping should never have been piloting the balloon that morning nor on the many other flights when he was solely responsible for other people's lives.

"The Carterton balloon tragedy was not simply an accident, but an accident waiting to happen," she said.

Also giving evidence at the Wellington District Court today was Chris Ford from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Yesterday, Mr Ford was questioned on a number of complaints about Mr Hopping in the years before the crash.

He defended the actions of two investigators who looked into one complaint that a flight was cancelled because the pilot was either "too pissed or too high" to fly.

The CAA had received the complaint by a third party and not a passenger or crew member, so it was put down to hearsay, he said.

He also said police had told the investigators they had no indication Mr Hopping was a cannabis user or that he could have been flying under the influence of the drug.

The CAA issued a further statement tonight, saying it would review any recommendations from the coroner.

Chairman Nigel Gould said safety regulations for commercial balloon operators had "changed materially" since the crash and were now considerably stronger.

"Several measures which address the families' concerns are already in place. It is a tragedy that this accident took place just four months before the new standards were introduced.

"I have absolute confidence that the CAA of today is a more robust, properly resourced and well managed organisation."

The inquest ended today. Coroner Peter Ryan said it would take about seven weeks to deliver a ruling.

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Key dates:

* January 7, 2012 -- A hot air balloon carrying 10 passengers and a pilot crashes into a Carterton field, killing all on board.

* February 24, 2012 -- A Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) inquiry finds three areas of non-compliance in the balloon.

* May 10, 2012 -- A TAIC report reveals Mr Hopping had cannabis in his system

* February 23, 2013 -- CAA blames errors made by Mr Hopping partly responsible for the crash and reveals his medical certificate had lapsed

* May 12, 2014 -- The first week of the coronial inquest begins into the deaths of all 11 passengers.

* Today -- The inquest ends.

- APNZ

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