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article image11 die in hot air balloon tragedy in New Zealand

By Sharon Davis     Jan 6, 2012 in Travel
Wellington - Ten passengers and an experienced pilot died when their hot air balloon caught alight and plummeted to the ground near the town of Carterton, on New Zealand's North Island.
The tragedy occurred around 7.30 a.m. on Saturday, 7th January despite it being a windless morning with conditions perfect for flying. Five couples from the Wellington region and pilot Lance Hopping died at the scene.
The NZ Herald reports police received around half a dozen calls from residents reporting a hot air balloon in difficulty.
The newspaper reports that some of the 10 passengers received their flight tickets as Christmas presents and eye witnesses talking to NZ Herald saw two people jump from the basket.
"We saw the two people jump and I said to 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 said Aurea Hickland.
"They just kept saying 'How are we going to tell our children."
Mrs Hickland has lived on Somerset Rd since 1996 and said she and her husband Neil had watched the balloons "hundreds of times".
"They're always flying over or landing near the neighbour's place - we don't really take any notice of them anymore."
Police are investigating the cause of the accident and a disaster victim identification team is heading to the scene to begin the process of identifying the bodies.
Stuff NZ reports grieving family and friends of the Carterton balloon crash victims have left flowers at the edge of the police cordon at the scene of the accident.
In an update Stuff elaborated how the tragedy unravelled:
Police said the balloon was preparing to land in a paddock after a 45-minute flight when it hit wires on a power line, causing sparking in the basket carrying the pilot and passengers.
"At this point, two of the 11 people on board, believed to be a male and a female, appear to have jumped from the basket,'' Wairarapa police area commander Brent Register said.
The balloon then made a sharp ascent, a fire ignited and the balloon plummeted into a paddock on Somerset Road, near State Highway 2.
In another report Stuff interviewed Wairarapa photographer Geoff Walker who has for four years taken photos for balloon pilot Lance Hopping, recording the special day of hundreds of his clients.
"It was just brilliant, everybody was really excited - this was going to be the best day of their life," Walker said.
His photos tracked the doomed flight from the start right up to when the balloon "erupted into flames", near the planned end of its flight.
"I was taking photos about 400 metres away on the big lens," he says.
"Then I saw a flash - literally just a flash of light - and then the whole thing (balloon) erupted into flames."
From where he was standing he could not tell if the balloon had hit power lines.
He dialled 111 immediately, then went straight to the crash site.
The paper reports this is the worst New Zealand air disaster since Erebus in 1979
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