15 May 2014

Panic, screams as balloon ignited

8:35 pm on 15 May 2014

Witnesses to a fatal balloon crash in which 11 people died have told of the panic and screams from those on board as the pilot desperately tried to free the craft from power lines.

Eleven people died in the crash in January 2012 near Carterton after the balloon snagged on power lines and caught fire.

An inquest is being held in the Wellington Coroner's Court, before Coroner Peter Ryan, into the deaths of all on board the balloon: Pilot Lance Hopping, 53, of Masterton; Howard Cox, 71, and Diana Cox, 63, of Wellington; Desmond Dean, 70, and Ann Dean, 65, of Masterton; cousins Valerie Bennett, 70, of Masterton, and Denise Dellabarca, 58, of Paraparaumu; partners Stephen Hopkirk, 50, and Belinda Harter, 49 of Lower Hutt; and young Wellington couple Johannes (Chrisjan) Jordann, 21, and Alexis Still, 19.

Clive Peters, who was in charge of the ground crew that day, told the court he had just arrived at the paddock when the tragedy unfolded.

He heard Mr Hopping yell out "duck down" and turned around to see the balloon caught in power lines.

He said Mr Hopping was trying to free the balloon, which then caught fire. Mr Peters saw two people jump from the balloon before it shot up into the air and was engulfed in flames.

Mr Peters said it wasn't possible to help the couple who jumped, Miss Still and Mr Jordann.

Another crew member, Max Sedcole, described seeing the aircraft burning above him, with its fabric flapping and black smoke pouring out of it.

Mr Sedcole heard someone call out "jump, jump" and a person cartwheeled out of the balloon, followed by another, who came down feet first. He said the cap which held the air in the balloon must have burnt out then, because the balloon suddenly came down and bodies fell out of the basket as it hit the ground.

Mr Sedcole said he was on the phone to the emergency services as he saw those things happening.

Safety conscious

Both crew members said Mr Hopping was safety conscious but Mr Peters conceded he had seen him fly close to the ground to give passengers a thrill.

The crew members also spoke of a rogue wind gust which they believed caught Mr Hopping by surprise shortly before the aircraft hit the powerlines.

Both of them said they had not seen Mr Hopping smoking cannabis on the day of the crash.

Mr Peters said he had the right to stop a flight if he felt the pilot was incapable of flying, but Mr Hopping had never presented in that way.

The court had earlier this week been told of scientific evidence about the level of THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, which was found in samples taken from Mr Hopping's body.

Mr Sedcole on Thursday told the court he had done first aid and CPR training and also had access to a first aid box.

However, he was in a different area to where Miss Still and Mr Jordann landed so did not help them.

Mr Peters said it was not possible for him to help the young couple because he was afraid they were lying near live power lines. He declined to answer when asked whether he regretted not going to their aid.

Mr Sedcole later choked up as he apologised to the families of those who died for not meeting them on the day of the crash, saying the police prevented him from speaking to them at that time.

The inquest is expected to conclude on Friday.