Hundreds join to mark balloon tragedy

By Nathan Crombie

Hundreds of mourners overflowed St Mark's Church in Carterton yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the hot air balloon crash that claimed 11 lives.

St Mark's vicar the Rev Jenny Chalmers led the service, assisted by the Rev David Smart, during which mourners were invited to light a candle and speak the name of the person they were remembering or the memory that first came to mind of that fateful day a year earlier.

"This is a service of memory. Today we remember the balloon accident of a year ago, the 11 people who died in the accident, and their friends and loved ones - those for whom this has been a long hard year and at the same time, a short unthinkable year," Mrs Chalmers said.

Seated alongside the families and friends of the victims were firefighters and police officers called to the scene of the crash last year, and some witnesses and emergency services workers who toiled at the site in the wake of the tragedy.

Mrs Chalmers expressed heartfelt thanks for the work of the emergency personnel who tended to the family members and witnesses "and all those who cared for our loved ones as they lay on the ground after the accident".

A large speaker carried the words of the service to up to 50 mourners gathered outside among the trees at the front of the church. The families of victims were offered a candle tied with a sprig of rosemary to take with them as a keepsake of the anniversary.

Families and friends of the victims walked shoulder to shoulder from the church at the close of the service, some sobbing and helped along by others.

Gavin Bennett, who lost his mother Valerie Bennett and her cousin Denise Dellabarca, had travelled from his home in Illinois with his wife Nicky to be at the service.

"The most special thing about the service is that we are all here together. The United States sometimes seems a world away and it brings it back in a bittersweet way to know that we are not alone."

Carterton Mayor Ron Mark said during the service that the balloon journey had started as a magical experience for those on board, but ended in horror and tragedy, and had devastated 11 families - six of which had ties to the region and to Carterton.

"Rarely does a day go by that we do not think of you, the friends and families of the dead, the loved ones, and what happened that day," he said. "They are, were and will be forever part of us."

He shed a tear after the service during a round of media questions about the impact the crash had wrought during his first year as mayor, which is heightened whenever he passes the site of the crash on Somerset Rd.

"I always have feelings - we slow, we remember, we always will."

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission is to make public a final report midway through this year that will be released ahead of coroners' inquests into the deaths. Mr Mark said the families, the wider community and the ballooning fraternity must be patient regarding those outcomes.

"There will be some answers we predict and there may not be answers in some areas. Whatever, that report must be concluded, the finding must be public and we must learn from any mistakes that were made, because ballooning will go on."

Wairarapa police area commander Inspector Brent Register said the memorial service had been vital and that police were still involved with the family members of victims.

"It's amazing being in a small community. You bump into them in the supermarket, you bump into them at kids' sports events," he said.

"A lot of my staff are still focused on the families they looked after during the incident. It has been hard on all of us."


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