A horrific hot air balloon crash near Carterton this morning has claimed 11 lives, and has been described by the local police area commander Brent Register as “A huge national, significant event. It’s a tragedy as bad as tragedies get.”
The balloon, carrying five couples from the Wellington region, as well as the pilot, Lance Hopping, went down in flames after becoming entangled in a powerline, with two people leaping from a great height to escape the blaze.
Some of the passengers on board the balloon received tickets for the ride as Christmas gifts from their children.
Aurea Hickland, who lives on a property beside where the balloon crashed, witnessed the entire incident.
“It was terrible,” she told the NZHerald.
“We were just having breakfast and we have big windows that face out onto where the balloon was coming down.
“I got up to have a cup of tea and I looked out the window and saw the balloon coming down.
“But then it started to shoot up in the air.
“And I said to my husband ‘Oh no the basket’s on fire, the basket’s on fire’.
“And it shot up in the air, which I guess was because of the heat, and we saw two people jump out and everyone was screaming – the screaming was just terrible – and then when the canopy went up in flames it just dropped.
“It was going up at a very big rate, I wouldn’t like to say how high but it was a very long way up.
“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.
“They just kept saying ‘How are we going to tell our children.”
While authorities believe they know who the victims were, many of the bodies had been badly burnt and a disaster victim identification team will be needed to identify them.
The crash is a tragic blow to family, friends and the wider community. Carterton Mayor, Ron Mark, told the Herald it was his toughest day, saying “”It’s a small tight knit community… it’s very tragic for New Zealand but for a little community like ours it hits home.”
“The community is bracing itself for names that it knows.”
There will be an inquiry into the incident and a team of investigators will be assembled to determine the cause.
The road around the scene of the crash has been blocked off, and the area has also been declared a no fly zone.
The disaster is one of New Zealand’s worst air accidents in three decades.