Eleven dead in New Zealand hot air balloon crash

Eyewitness Bevan Lambess told TVNZ's reporter Sarah Batley how he watched as "the whole basket started to go up in flames"

Eleven people have died in a hot-air balloon crash near the town of Carterton in New Zealand.

Police and witnesses say the balloon struck power lines and burst into flames, before plunging to the ground.

The incident occurred in the Wairarapa region, about 80km (50 miles) north-east of the capital Wellington - an area that is popular with balloonists.

Five couples from the Wellington area were on board, plus the pilot. Nobody survived.

Three people bereaved by Saturday's hot air balloon crash in Carterton, north of Wellington, New Zealand, visit the crash site Some of the bereaved visited the site of New Zealand's worst air disaster since 1979

The crash happened on farmland at Clareville, near Carterton, on New Zealand's North Island.

"We are deeply sorry to learn of this tragic accident and our hearts go out to those who are now mourning the loss of life," Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said according to Associated Press news agency.

An investigation by New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission is under way.

'10m of flames'

Eyewitness Bevan Lambess, who was driving by, told Reuters news agency: "The wicker basket was on fire and I saw something holding it down - it looked like ropes but I got closer and it was actually the top (electric) power line that was holding the basket down.

Superintendent Mike Rusbatch from Wellington Police called the crash "a tragedy"

"It probably still would have been 15m in the air. I slowed down and then the whole basket started to go up in flames."

A police commander, Mike Rusbatch, said two people appeared to have jumped from the basket of the balloon as it came down.

Another witness, David McKinley, told the state broadcaster TVNZ he noticed part of the basket was on fire when it passed over his garden.

"It was just above the trees when I first saw it. It looked like he tried to raise it a bit higher. All of a sudden there was just 10m of flames.

"It was like a rocket coming down," he said.

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The incident occurred in bright, clear conditions with little wind.

The only victim publicly identified so far is the pilot and balloon owner, Lance Hopping, reported AP.

He was considered an experienced and safety-conscious pilot who acted as safety officer for the Balloons over Wairarapa annual event - with organiser Jonathan Hooker quoted as saying he had more than 10,000 hours of commercial ballooning experience.

The incident is New Zealand's worst air disaster since 1979, when an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 passengers on board.

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