11 people killed in New Zealand ballooning accident

January 7, 2012 1:33 pm 

WELLINGTON, Jan. 7 — Eleven people were killed after the hot air balloon they were in crashed to the ground in New Zealand early Saturday.

A New Zealand Police statement said the accident was reported at 7:26 a.m. at Clareville, near Carterton in the lower North Island.

Police, fire and ambulance officers were at the crash site, according to Radio New Zealand.

The crash site was cordoned off and only emergency workers and the families of those in the balloon were being allowed through, Radio New Zealand reported.

It quoted a Wairarapa ballooning website as saying the balloon could carry up to 10 passengers and the pilot.

Television New Zealand (TVNZ) reported the crash was New Zealand's worst aviation accident since an Air New Zealand passenger jet crashed into Mount Erebus in the Antarctic with the loss of 257 lives in 1979.

Carterton resident Don Cunningham told TVNZ that he saw the canopy going down in what looked like a controlled descent in perfect conditions with hardly any wind.

Then he heard screaming and shouting and saw a big pall of smoke.

Eyewitness Rosalee Thurston told TVNZ her family saw "a puff of smoke in the sky and then flames as the balloon fell to the earth. "

Witnesses told TVNZ that the balloon was about 150 meters in the air when "things seemed to go wrong" and it burst into flames, before it "came down like a rocket" with a "huge bang."

They said the balloon might have hit a power pole on the way down, cutting power to the area for several minutes.

New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission announced it had begun an inquiry into the accident.

An investigation team was being assembled of up to four investigators, said a statement from the commission.

Hot air balloon flights are a popular attraction for visitors to the area and normally take off in the early morning. (PNA/Xinhua) DCT/eds

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