Balloon Tragedy: A Decade Later

Masterton Fire Station Officer Mike Cornford, former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark and Carterton Fire Chief Wayne Robinson with certificates of appreciation presented to firefighters after the tragedy. PICTURE/FILE

Tragedy brings the community together


Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the Carterton balloon crash which left 11 people dead.

On January 7, 2012, a hot air balloon took off with a pilot and ten passengers on board. By 07:22, the balloon had become entangled in a power line and soon after was engulfed in flames.

The Carriage Accident Investigation Board said in its report that the weather that morning was good with light, variable winds, which was conducive to flying.

He said the balloon had been in the air for about 35 minutes when the pilot began to descend the balloon in preparation for landing in the Somerset Rd area.

“The balloon changed direction several times on its way down to lower levels. At around 07:20, the balloon descended five or seven meters from the ground as it drifted over a silage pen.

The report says the paddock was surrounded on two sides by 9m high power lines. He said the ball had drifted near the paddock at a height of 30m to 60m, heading in the opposite direction.

The report says the balloon was drifting towards power lines at the other end of the road when the wind changed.

“The pilot applied the burners in an attempt to get past the power lines, but the balloon basket got stuck there.”

The balloon got caught in a power line and caught fire. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

He indicated that an intense electric arc occurred and that a fire broke out in the lower part of the nacelle.

“One of the balloon’s liquefied petroleum gases [LPG] the fuel cylinders were ruptured by the electric arc and the escaping fuel intensified the fire.

Former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark said he still struggles thinking about that day.

“When I was given the responsibility of leading this community, I never expected to wake up to a call saying a balloon went down and no one survived.”

Mark said a remarkable amount of love came from the community after the tragedy.

“I have never seen such concentrated grief in thousands of people. The tragedy tore the community apart, but a remarkable warmth emerged.

“So many strangers have come together to support the police, the families of the victims, the firefighters and me too.”

Sheryl Rule was a family member of one of the crash victims. Although there was no official 10th anniversary commemoration, Rule’s family and several other families of victims had spent time at the Somerset Rd memorial site.

She said they were grateful to the family who allowed the front of their section to be used for the memorial.

“Our hearts go out to everyone involved in this incident, first responders, police and the community who stepped up to help us during the worst time imaginable.”

She said all of their thoughts and love were with the other families affected by the tragedy.

Former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark is comforted by the next Mayor, John Booth. PICTURE/FILE

“Ten years feels like an eternity, and also just yesterday.”

Mark said it was clear when you lived in a rural community that everyone was connected in one way or another.

He said everyone had done their best to handle the situation and respond to international media.

He said those involved in the response moved from the fire station to the center of the event.

“Victim aid, counsellors, firefighters and civil protection were all working in the same space.”

Mark said community members have come together to help where they can.

“That’s what I love about Carterton. The community cares about people they didn’t even know.

He said he didn’t know everyone on that flight, but he got to know their families.

“Ten years later, I’m still overcome with absolute sadness.”

“Families are still mourning a needless loss of life.”

Mark had ridden in a balloon with the pilot, Lance Hopping, and said Hopping was great at helping people feel comfortable before a flight, especially those experiencing it for the first time.

He said Hopping showed him the magic of hot air ballooning.

“There was a great serenity and it showed the beauty of Wairarapa.”

The report revealed that traces of cannabis were found in Hopping’s system, which were caused by both long-term and recent use.

“While it’s hard to say how much each type of use contributed to the outcome, cannabis is known to affect a person’s judgment and decision-making ability.”

The report said poor judgment and poor decision-making contributed to the accident.

“The commission found that the pilot’s consumption of cannabis could not be excluded as a contributing factor to his errors in judgement, and therefore to the accident.”

According to the report, the coroner, Peter Ryan, has recommended changes to the law to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.

Mark said he was aware of first responders and what they had to deal with.

He said firefighters see horrific things every day as they respond to car crashes, suicides and fires.

Mark said he wanted the Carterton community to remember how the emergency services responded to the tragedy.

“I always like to think that the community would rise up when people were in need.”