Reuters – By Mark Coote
CARTERTON, New Zealand – A hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand on Saturday, killing all 11 people on board in the country’s worst air accident in more than three decades.
Police said the balloon appeared to have clipped powerlines and caught fire before crashing into farmland near Carterton, about 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island.
“Sadly the pilot and 10 passengers on board have not survived,” Wellington District Commander Superintendent Mike Rusbatch said. The accident occurred just before 7.30 am (1830 GMT) in calm, clear weather in a region well known for hot air ballooning.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were flames licking up the side of the basket, right up the guy-ropes,” David McKinlay told state-run Television New Zealand.
When the flames reached the canopy, the balloon plunged to the ground, said McKinlay.
“There was a big, long pencil-like flame maybe 20 metres (65 feet) long, heading towards the ground at a terrible speed,” he said.
Other witnesses reported hearing screams and seeing smoke and flames trailing from the balloon before it hit the ground. Rusbatch said five couples from across the wider Wellington region as well as the pilot were on board. Two victims had either jumped or fallen from the burning balloon shortly before it crashed, he said.
Police, who have cordoned off the crash site, are not releasing the names of the victims until next-of-kin have been informed.
Local resident Sean Barnes said the pilot, named in media as Lance Hopping, was well known.
“Everybody knew him, he brought a lot of people to the community to go up in the balloon,” Barnes told Reuters.
The accident was New Zealand’s worst air disaster since an Antarctic tourist flight crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board.
“It’s a very sad time for all balloonists,” said Martyn Stacey, president of the Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand.
“On the whole, aviation-wise, ballooning is one of the safest forms of flying.”
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said rules for commercial hot air ballooning in New Zealand had recently been reviewed.
“Experts will be looking to learn any lessons from the investigations … which can help improve safety for others in the future,” Brownlee said in a statement.