Couple’s children saw fatal flight

TWO of the 11 people who died when a hot-air balloon turned into a tower of “sheer flame” after hitting power lines in rural New Zealand had been given the trip as a Christmas present, local media said yesterday.

Desmond and Ann Dean’s children, who gave them the $350 (about £180) flights, were watching as the balloon caught fire early yesterday as it prepared to land after a 40 minute flight, reports claimed.

It is also believed that the pilot of the ill-fated balloon – Lance Hopping – had been due to marry his fiance in April. He had sent out invitations to his wedding the morning of the tragedy, according to reports.

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Everyone on the flight died in what was New Zealand’s deadliest air accident in nearly 50 years.

A photographer is believed to have captured the incident in its entirety. He said last night that the photos were graphic and had been given to police.

“It’s as bad as tragedies get,” local police commander Brent Register said.

Two of those killed jumped out of the basket in desperation before the burning balloon hit the ground with a loud bang. It crashed into farmland near the township of Carterton, a region known for hot-air ballooning.

The pilot and five couples were killed. Some of the bodies were badly burned, said Superintendent Mike Rusbatch, a police district commander in Wellington. The early morning weather was clear and bright with minimal wind.

He said it appeared the balloon’s basket struck power lines that sparked a fire on board. Witnesses told local media they saw 32ft-high flames rising from the basket. The burning balloon was just above the trees when David McKinlay saw it from his garden.