Eleven people were killed last night when a hot air balloon on a pleasure flight burst into flames and plunged 500ft to the ground in New Zealand.
The balloon, which is thought to have hit power lines, came crashing to the ground on farmland about a mile outside Carterton, about 40 miles from Wellington. At least two people jumped from the burning basket before it hit the ground.
Just minutes before the accident the passengers had waved, smiled and joked with friends and relations as they prepared to take off and many are thought to have watched from the ground as the tragedy unfolded. One woman was heard making a phone call to say: "Mum and Dad have been in a hot air balloon accident, they've hit power lines and they're dead."
Stunned witnesses described watching as flames licked the side of the basket before shooting up the guy ropes and setting fire to the canopy.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said David McKinley. "It was just above the trees when I first saw it... it looked like [the pilot] tried to raise it a bit higher... all of a sudden there was just 10 metres of flames. It was like a rocket coming down – it was just unbelievable."
One resident who saw the crash said he had waved at the passengers as the balloon passed overhead: "Then I heard the screams and looked out the window and heard it coming down. I was having my breakfast and I heard them, they sounded like screams of joy but they weren't."
Don Cunningham, another resident, said: "Conditions were perfect. There is hardly any wind so it wasn't moving very quickly. I saw the canopy going down and then I heard some screaming and shouting."
Superintendent Mike Rusbatch, the Wellington District Commander, said it appeared the crash had been caused by the balloon clipping power lines. The death toll of the pilot and 10 passengers makes it the country's worst air disaster since a tourist flight to see Antarctica crashed in 1979 killing all 257 people on board.