WELLINGTON // A hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand on Saturday after hitting a power line, killing all 11 people on board as their families watched on in horror.
It came hurtling down "like a rocket" in calm weather near Carterton, a small town north of the capital Wellington and a popular area for ballooning, in what appears to be the worst balloon crash in history.
As the balloon was preparing to land, it hit power lines, causing sparking in the basket carrying the pilot and 10 passengers, 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," he said.
Register said the balloon then made a sharp ascent, a fire ignited on board and the balloon plummeted into a paddock. There were no survivors.
The passengers were confirmed as five couples from the Wellington region. Family members of some of the dead witnessed the tragedy because they were on the ground waiting for their loved ones to land, The New Zealand Herald said.
Aurea Hickland, who lives next to the crash site, saw the accident happen as she was having breakfast. "It was terrible," she was quoted as saying by The Herald.
"I said to my husband, 'Oh no, the basket's on fire, the basket's on fire'. We saw the two people jump and I said to Neil, 'They won't survive,' it was just awful.
"It shot up in the air, and everyone was screaming -- the screaming was just terrible -- and then when the canopy went up in flames it just dropped," she said.
"Neil ran out and then came back with two of the family members (waiting for the balloon to land) and one was saying that they had bought the tickets for their parents for Christmas.
"They just kept saying 'How are we going to tell our children?'"
Another witness, David McKinlay, told reporters he looked up to see one side of the basket on fire and "all of a sudden there was just 10 metres of flames".
"It was like a rocket coming down; it was just unbelievable," he said.
McKinlay, who alerted the emergency services, said the balloon was about 150 metres (500 feet) up when it suddenly plummeted to the ground.
Jacqui O'Connor, a nurse holidaying in the area, made her way through fallen power lines to reach the two people who leaped from the basket. Their bodies lay about 100 metres from where the balloon crashed down.
It was New Zealand's worst aviation disaster since 1979, when an Air New Zealand jet crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica killing 257 people.
Police say they were alerted to the balloon tragedy just before 7:30 am. Ballooning companies in Carterton, about 150 kilometres (95 miles) north of Wellington, recommend early morning flights.
Reporters at the scene said the crash site had been cordoned off and only emergency workers and the families of those on board the balloon were being allowed through.
The balloon was believed to have been owned by Ballooning New Zealand director Lance Hopping, who has more than 1,000 hours of commercial ballooning experience.
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said an investigation was under way to determine the cause of the crash and draw up recommendations to prevent a similar accident in future.
"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," Brownlee said.
Hot air ballooning is tightly regulated in New Zealand, and two years ago the civil aviation authority banned one company after "serious safety concerns" were uncovered in safety audits and spot checks.
In recent years there have been several fatal balloon crashes around the world.
In the US in 1993 a balloon again hit a power line, tearing off the basket and sending it flying 30 metres to the ground. Six people were killed.
In France in 2001 the same number of people died after a balloon touched a power line, and a year later four Dutch tourists were killed when their balloon caught fire and crashed in a favourite spot for visitors in southern China.
Recent deadly balloon accidents
The hot air balloon crash that killed 11 people in New Zealand Saturday was the worst accident of its kind in recent years. Here is a list of such crashes that have occurred in the past two decades:
Jan 7, 2012: Eleven people are killed when a hot air balloon hits a power line and bursts into flames on a pleasure flight near Carterton, New Zealand, north of the capital Wellington.
Oct 14, 2009: Four Dutch tourists die when their balloon catches fire and crashes in Yangshuo, a favourite spot for tourists in southern China.
August 26, 2001: Six people including a child are killed when their balloon touches a power line at Verrens-Arvey, southwestern France.
June 17, 1999: Four passengers in a hot-air balloon are killed, also in hitting a power line, near Ibbenburen, western Germany.
Jan 31, 1996: Strong winds dash a balloon into a mountainside at a height of 2,400 metres (8,000 feet) in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps, killing five people.
Jan 16, 1994: A balloon bursts into flames during a landing accident near Mosbach, southwestern Germany, and three people are killed.
Aug 8, 1993: A balloon hits a power line near Aspen, Colorado, tearing off the basket and sending it plummeting 30 metres (100 feet) to the ground. Six people are killed.
Oct 6, 1990: Four people are killed in a balloon crash at Gaenserndorf, near Vienna.