Hot air balloon crash kills 11 in New Zealand


Friends and family of those killed in a hot air balloon accident in New Zealand visit the site on January 7, 2012 in Carterton.


Marty Melville

A hot air balloon crash killed 11 people in New Zealand on Saturday.

In the country's worst air accident in more than three decades, the balloon caught fire before crashing into farmland near Carterton, about 50 miles northeast of the capital, Wellington, a popular area for hot air ballooning, Reuters reported.

Two of the passengers, a man and woman, appeared to have jumped from the basket, plummeting to their deaths, according to News.com.au.

Witnesses told state-run Television New Zealand they heard screams and shouting as the balloon came down in calm, clear and warm weather.

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"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There were flames licking up the side of the basket, right up the guy-ropes," said David McKinlay, who was walking his dog when he saw the balloon catch fire.

McKinlay, who alerted the emergency services, said the balloon was about 500 feet in the air when it plummeted to the ground.

"There was a big, long pencil-like flame maybe [65 feet] long, heading towards the ground at a terrible speed," he said.

"It was like a rocket coming down; it was just unbelievable,'' he told reporters at the scene.

Two of the passengers are believed to have leaped from the burning basket and were found in a nearby paddock, Agence France-Presse reported.

Another witness told Fairfax News he was looking out of his window when he saw the balloon appear to hit a power cable.

"The people were enjoying a nice ride and by the looks of it they clipped a power wire,'' he said. "Then I heard the screams and looked out the window and heard it coming down. I was having my breakfast and I heard them. They sounded like screams of joy but they weren't.

"It wasn't coming from a great deal of height. I ran down the road to see if I could help but by that stage it was too late. it was just burned out. By the time the emergency services got there, there wasn't much of a chance.''

Officials confirmed the stricken balloon hit power lines as it fell, causing electricity cuts in the area for about 20 minutes, according to the Guardian.

According to Reuters:

The accident is the New Zealand's worst air disaster since a Antarctic sight-seeing flight crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board.

The New Zealand Herald reported that the owner of the balloon was thought to be Lance Hopping, the operator of Ballooning New Zealand Ltd, although it is not known if he was on board the flight.

Hopping, who has more than 1,000 hours of commercial ballooning experience, is the safety manager of the popular Balloons Over Wairarapa event, according to organizer Jonathan Hooker.

The balloon was "believed to be a Cameron A-210, which can carry 10 passengers plus one pilot," the paper reported, adding that those on board were a mix of locals and visitors.