The brightly coloured balloon took off to the roar of its burner and to laughter just audible to neighbours.

The 11-person Cameron A-210, piloted by experienced flyer Lance Hopping, rose into a clear dawn sky about 6.40am, from a paddock behind Carterton's Paua World factory.

It was a $700 treat for five pairs of strangers.

Valerie Bennett had received two places on the hot-air balloon as a 70th birthday gift from her United States-based son.

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Ms Bennett, a widow, had been due to fly two months ago during a visit by her daughter, who also lives in the United States - but it is believed foul weather postponed the trip.

She instead hopped into the balloon's basket on Saturday with cousin Denise Dellabarca, 58, who had come up from her house on the Kapiti Coast.

Beside them was Stephen Hopkirk, from Lower Hutt, who was turning 50.

His partner, Belinda Harter, had surprised him with the flight on his birthday.

The conditions were perfect as Mr Hopping brought out the balloon from his hangar and laid it down on a rectangle of mowed grass surrounded by tall stalks.

Beyond a hedge, a neighbour listened in his bed as the balloon was filled with hot air by blasts of its engine, a sound that had long lost its novelty in his five years living there.

Indistinct chatter and laughter drifted through his window as the group posed for photos.

Desmond Dean put one arm around his wife, Ann, and held on to his hat with the other; they smiled for photographer Geoff Walker as the balloon inflated behind them.

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The Masterton couple had received the flight as a Christmas present from their children, and they looked forward to seeing the local landscape from the air.

By all accounts, the take-off went just as it always had in all of Mr Hopping's 10,000 hours of flight experience: neighbours heard the voices pass overhead and witnesses described a slow, steady flight in light wind.

About 35 minutes later the balloon was just 1km to the east, above a paddock on Somerset Rd.

A former staff member for television's One News who lived in the area described how the balloon began what appeared to be a controlled descent about 7.15am.

It passed just beyond a line of trees.

Then the screams began.

Another resident was in the middle of breakfast. She got up from her seat to make a cup of tea when she saw out of her window the balloon abruptly shoot into the air.

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

"And we saw two people jump out and everyone was screaming - the screaming was just terrible."

The balloon had hit a power line and ignited; it is thought that the resulting heat sent it soaring from its planned descent.

It has not been confirmed who jumped from the balloon. But likely candidates are a young couple, 19-year-old Alexis Still and 21-year-old Chrisjan Jordaan, who were on the flight for a romantic getaway. At least Mr Jordaan's father hopes it was them.

"The thought of my son burning alive is bad ... very, very bad."

Relatives of some of the passengers were on the ground and saw the balloon plunge into the paddock as a streaking fireball.

The family members were heard making desperate, blunt phone calls.

"Come now, we need you. Mum and dad have been in a balloon accident.

"It's burst into flames and they're dead."

Police received half a dozen 111 calls and emergency services rushed to the scene.

Mr Walker, the photographer, had captured the balloon's fall and continued to photograph the wreckage, in which his friend Mr Hopping lay, until police relieved him.

Two nurses holidaying in the area ran to the scene and did their best to help amid the burning wreckage - or, as they called it, the "carnage".

The exact cause of the crash is under investigation and may take a year to pin down.

Sorting through the wreckage to retrieve the bodies alone took three full days.

Wairarapa Area Commander Inspector Brent Register's voice wavered with emotion as he talked of the wreckage and the task officers faced in making sense of it for evidence and body identification.

The last of the 11 bodies was finally pulled from the scene about 5pm yesterday, with family members gathered there for a short service for the dead. They had arrived in the region from all across New Zealand and the world.

Among those flying home was Jeremy Cox. He had moved to Australia only just before Christmas, but his parents, Diana and Howard Cox, were on the balloon.

Within weeks he has returned to tragedy.