“It’s as bad as tragedies get,” local police commander Brent Register said.
It was New Zealand’s deadliest air accident in nearly 50 years.
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 capital. The early morning weather was clear and bright with minimal wind.
Rusbatch 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 as he watered his garden.
“It looked like he [the pilot] tried to raise it a bit higher… all of a sudden there was just ten metres of flames,” he said.
The balloon rose to 500ft before dropping quickly and turned into “just a sheer flame as it hit the ground”.
Rusbatch said the two people who jumped died when they hit the ground.
The only victim publicly identified so far is the pilot and balloon owner, Lance Hopping.
Hopping was safety officer for the Balloons over Wairarapa annual event, and was considered an experienced and safety- conscious pilot.