WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A hot air balloon carrying 11 people turned into a horrifying tower of "sheer flame" Saturday after hitting power lines near a rural New Zealand town, police and witnesses said. All aboard were killed in the deadliest air crash in New Zealand in nearly 50 years.
Two of those killed jumped out of the basket in desperation before the fiery balloon plummeted to farmland with a loud bang as it hit the ground. The balloon crashed near the township of Carterton, in a region well known for its hot air ballooning, in clear, bright early morning conditions with minimal wind.
The pilot and five couples from the Wellington area, about 95 miles south of the crash site, were killed. Some of the bodies were badly burned, said Superintendent Mike Rusbatch, a police district commander in Wellington, the capital.
Rusbatch said it appeared the balloon's basket struck power lines that set a fire on board. Witnesses told local media of seeing 32-foot high flames rising from the basket of the dark blue and maroon striped balloon before it plummeted to the farmland below.
Bevan Lambeth said the basket was on fire "and the power lines were holding the basket down, but it was still about 50 meters 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," he told TVOne News.
The only victim publicly identified so far is the pilot and balloon owner, Lance Hopping. He was safety officer for the Balloons over Wairarapa annual event, and was considered an experienced and safety-conscious pilot.