Woman and daughter killed after balloon catches fire

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The Independent US

A hot-air balloon caught fire in the southern suburbs of Vancouver, killing a woman and her teenage daughter and injuring 11 others. Some of the injured had leapt to the ground with their clothes in flames, while their families looked on in horror.

The balloon, with 12 passengers and a pilot, caught fire as it was preparing to take off from a field in Surrey, British Columbia, for a sunset flight on Friday.

The fire apparently started when the gas burner malfunctioned. Police Sgt Roger Morrow said the pilot asked the passengers to get out of the basket. "The balloon was tethered at the time, but then broke and came loose," he added. "They were all trying to get out." Some passengers did not manage to escape from the basket before it became airborne. John Kageorge, of Fantasy Balloon Charters, said: "One person jumped from an unsafe distance, two storeys in the air or more." The mother and daughter did not jump, he said, although two of their family members made it out of the basket.

Seconds after some of the passengers had escaped, the balloon shot up into the air, propelled by a fireball. Shortly after, the balloon burnt through, lost its lift and plunged to the ground inside a caravan park.

One passenger, Diana Rutledge, survived with broken legs and other injuries when she jumped from the balloon along with another woman. She was Anniliese Birr, described as a German visitor who was celebrating her 69th birthday with the balloon ride.

Speaking from her hospital bed, Ms Rutledge told Global BC television news that they both dropped about five storeys to the ground. "Some people had jumped out of the balloon so the balloon skyrocketed straight up. And I thought, 'OK, it's do or die,'" Ms Rutledge said. "So I got my legs over the balloon and as I was leaving the balloon I put my arms around the woman next to me and I took her with me."

"All the way down I thought, this is going to really hurt."

The scene was witnessed by hundreds of people, many of them waiting at a border crossing to enter the United States.

Haley Baertl, 14, was driving around a caravan park in a golf cart with her friends when someone shouted that the balloon overhead was in trouble. "I looked up and saw this balloon on fire," she recounted. "And then my friend was screaming at me to turn around. Then I saw the balloon in flames and flying into one of the trailers. And then it hit one of the trailers." She saw someone jump out of the burning balloon. There was a loud noise that sounded like gunshots," she said. "I was terrified and felt like I was going to die."

Joy Hemsworth lives across the street from the balloon launch pad and watched as three balloons launched.

"What unfolded next was unbelievable," she told The Vancouver Sun newspaper. "The propane bottle exploded and caught on fire. It rose up in the air about 20 metres. Then the rope burst and the basket dropped to the ground. It took seconds for the rope to burn off and the basket to drop with all those people inside," she said.

David Cove, who has lived in the complex for four years, said there were two homes hit "and collateral damage on either side".

"We were in the middle of making dinner when we felt our motorhome shaking," he said. "We ran out to take a look, and by then the homes were engulfed in a cloud of flames."