WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A hot air balloon crashed and killed all 11 people aboard near a rural New Zealand town some 94 miles (150 kilometers) north of the capital, Wellington, officials said Saturday.
Police confirmed "multiple deaths" when the balloon crashed, with two people leaping from the burning basket. Neither survived the fall, near show grounds north of the township of Carterton.
A Wellington police district commander, Superintendent Mike Rusbatch, said it appeared the balloon struck power lines that set a fire on board, causing the balloon to crash in farmland in clear, bright early morning conditions with minimal wind. The region is well known for its hot air ballooning.
There were five couples on board from the Wellington region, and the pilot.
Rusbatch said two people jumped from the basket before it hit the ground, but they did not survive. A number of the bodies had been badly burned.
"We believe we know who the victims were," he told the news Web site "Stuff," adding, "this is a significant event. A tragedy for those involved and their families."
Witnesses told local media of seeing 32-foot (10-meter) high flames rising from the balloon's basket before it plummeted to the ground.
Bevan Lambeth said the basket was on fire "and the power lines were holding the basket down, but it was still about 50 meters (165 feet) in the air. Then the whole basket started to go up in flames," as the balloon broke clear of the electric lines.
"I saw ... (it) then go straight up in the air and the flames just engulfed the whole balloon and it crashed to the ground. When it came down it came down really quickly ... after it was released from the lines," he told TVOne News.
Local resident David McKinlay was "watering the garden and heard a noise, the noise of the gas to raise the balloon. I looked over and I couldn't believe it — one side of the basket was on fire."
"It was just above the trees when I first saw it ... it looked like he (the pilot) tried to raise it a bit higher ... all of a sudden there was just 10 meters of flames," he said.
The dark blue and maroon striped balloon was about 500 feet (150 meters) in the air and dropped quickly, turning to "just a sheer flame as it hit the ground," where "there was a big bang," he said.
Rosalee Thurston was in a car with her husband and daughter when they saw "a puff of smoke in the sky and then flames as the balloon fell to the earth," she told TVOne News.
New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission manager Peter Northcote said the commission had opened an inquiry into the crash, with investigators already on the scene.
The Commission conducts safety-focused investigations to explain the causes of an accident and help reduce the likelihood of similar events.
Local media reported the fatal balloon crash as the worst aviation crash in New Zealand since the Nov. 28, 1979 Erebus disaster, when an Air New Zealand DC-8 airliner on a scenic flight slammed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 on board.