| 07.01,12. 03:24 PM |
11 dead in hot air balloon crash in New Zealand
January 07, 2012
A PILOT and 10 passengers died when a hot air balloon was engulfed in flames at Clareville, north of Wellington today.
Five couples and the pilot, believed to be the owner of the balloon Lance Hopping, were killed in the crash which occurred about 7:30am local time in a rural area.
The cause of the accident in a popular ballooning area, was still to be confirmed although police said it appeared the craft clipped power lines before bursting into flames. The weather at the time was clear with little wind.
A nurse who was one of the first on the scene near the township of Carterton, about 52 miles (84km) northwest of the capital Wellington, reportedly risked her life trying to save the lives of two people who had tried to jump clear.
Jacqui O'Connor, 38, said the balloon became "like a cartoon character" as it combusted and darted around the sky before crashing. She dodged live power lines in a bid to help a couple who jumped from the basket before it hit the ground.
Police at the scene confirmed were five couples on board from the greater Wellington region and the pilot.
"We believe we know who the victims were. We are yet to notify many of the family members," Wellington District Commander Superintendent Mike Rusbatch said.
"This is a significant event. A tragedy for those involved and their families."
Aurea Hickland, who lives next to the farmland where the balloon crashed, saw the two people jump from the basket, telling the New Zealand Herald everyone on board was screaming.
"We saw the two people jump and I said to (my husband) 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."
Local resident David McKinlay told The Dominion Post he had seen flames leap as high as 30 feet (10m) from the balloon.
"I was watering the garden and heard a noise, the noise of the gas to raise the balloon. I looked over and I couldn't believe it - one side of the basket was on fire," he said.
"It was just above the trees when I first saw it ... it looked like he tried to raise it a bit higher ... all of a sudden there was just 10 meters of flames.
"It was like a rocket coming down; it was just unbelievable."
He said the balloon was about 500 feet (150 meters) up in the air and dropped quickly, describing it as "just a sheer flame as it hit the ground."
Another witness quoted by the newspaper said he had waved to the passengers when he saw the balloon overhead.
"The people were enjoying a nice ride and by the looks of it they clipped a power wire," the unnamed man said.
"They've clipped a power wire and tried to go up, then they've sort of gone across the road then it's caught fire and they come down in a hell of a hurry."
A disaster victim identification team was being sent to the area, with the New Zealand Herald reporting the accident was the nation's worst aviation disaster since the 1979 crash of an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight in Antarctica in which 257 people died.