8 Jan 2012

Eleven dead in Carterton balloon crash

5:48 am on 8 January 2012

Two of the 11 bodies of people killed in a hot air balloon crash near Carterton are being removed from the scene.

Police say the bodies will be taken to the mortuary at Wellington Hospital; the other nine will remain at the crash site overnight.

The crash occurred in farmland at around 7.25am on Saturday, about 80km north of Wellington. There were five couples and a pilot on board.

Inspector Brent Register says as the balloon was preparing to land in a paddock in Somerset Road in Carterton, it hit wires on a power line, causing sparking in the basket.

He says at this stage two people, believed to be a man and a woman, appear to have jumped from the basket.

Mr Register says the balloon then made a sharp ascent, a fire ignited on board and the balloon plummeted into a paddock about 200 metres away on Somerset Road.

He says the hot air balloon left Kent Street in Carterton around 6.45am and police began receiving reports of a balloon in distress from eye witnesses at about 7.25am.

Powerco says power was cut to around 3800 customers at about 7.20am after the balloon hit overhead lines, but it had been restored to all but two customers by early Saturday afternoon.

Witness saw flames

A man who witnessed the crash told Radio New Zealand News that the balloon was in flames as it descended.

Dave McKinley who witnessed the crash, says he was in his garden, when he heard a hissing sound, and looked up to see flames licking up the side of the wicker basket of the balloon.

He ran inside and dialled 111. When he came back outside, he saw about 10 metres of flame trailing from the balloon which was descending very fast to the ground.

It disappeared to ground level, then a big cloud of black smoke went up which he believes was the nylon balloon itself landing on the flames.

It's believed the balloon was owned and operated by Lance Hopping, a pilot with more than 1000 hours commercial ballooning experience.

The Balloons over Wairarapa event website says Mr Hopping has one of New Zealand's biggest balloons, a Cameron 210, which can carry 10 passengers plus the pilot.

It is not known if Mr Hopping was piloting the balloon when it crashed.

Centre set up

Carterton District Council set up an emergency centre at the fire station on Saturday.

Mayor Ron Mark says council personnel are there and Victim Support has been mobilised, to support and contact families of the deceased.

He says Carterton is a very small community and it's a tragedy that will hit deep.

Inspector Brent Register says the specialist Disaster Victim Identification team are involved.

"This process will take some time, a number of the bodies are badly burnt and it will take our forensic officers a number of days to formally identify the people involved," he said.

Police earlier said they would not issue any names until all next of kin had been advised.

All those on the flight were from around the Wellington region.

Multiple agencies have begun to investigate the crash, including the Fire Service, the Coroner's office, the Transport Accident & Investigation Commission, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department of Labour.

Company will co-operate with investigations

The balloon that crashed was owned by the Early Morning Balloon company, based in Carterton.

The company released a statement saying it will fully co-operate with investigations into the tragedy.

It says many families will be affected, and their thoughts and sympathies lie with the families and friends of the passengers and pilot who lost their lives.

By Saturday evening police had collected statements from five eyewitnesses - three of whom worked for Early Morning Balloons.

The region is well known for hot air ballooning. Conditions were bright and clear with little wind.

NZ's worst aviation accident since Erebus

It's the seventh worst aviation accident in New Zealand's history.

The worst was on 28 November 1979, when an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight to Antarctica crashed into the side of Mt Erebus.

All 257 people on board were killed.

The worst accident in mainland New Zealand was in 1963, when a DC3 flight from Auckland to Tauranga flew into a rock face in the Kaimai ranges, killing 23 people.