By David Barber –
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Eleven people died when a hot air balloon caught fire after hitting a power line as it was landing 55 miles north of New Zealand’s capital Saturday, police said.
Two of the passengers apparently died when they jumped from the balloon’s basket in a vain attempt to save their lives.
Five couples and the pilot died in the crash after a 45-minute sightseeing trip over Wairarapa province, one of the country’s main ballooning regions.
“As the balloon was preparing to land, it hit wires on a power line, causing sparking in the basket,” local police inspector Brent Register said.
“At this point, two of the 11 people onboard, believed to be a male and a female, appear to have jumped from the basket.” Register said the balloon then made a sharp ascent, a fire ignited on board and it plummeted into a field.
Witness David McKinlay told Radio New Zealand he saw flames trailing about 30 feet from the gondola as it plunged.
“It was coming down like a rocket,” he said.
Relatives who had bought tickets for the flight as a Christmas present for their parents watched the disaster, a witness said.
“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,” area resident Aurea Hickland told the New Zealand Herald’s website.
The website of Early Morning Balloons Ltd, Wairarapa, said, “A balloon cannot be steered. It drifts with the wind. Part of the ballooning magic is that you never know in advance where you might land.”