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Balloon tragedy: A decade on

Masterton fire station officer Mike Cornford, former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark, and Carterton fire chief Wayne Robinson with certificates of appreciation presented to the fire brigades after the tragedy. PHOTO/FILE

Tragedy pulls community together

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Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the Carterton balloon crash that caused the death of 11 people.

On January 7, 2012, a hot air balloon set off with one pilot and ten passengers on board. By 7.22am, the balloon had become entangled in a power line and soon after was engulfed in flames.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission said in its report that the weather conditions that morning were fine with light and variable wind, which was suitable for flight.

It said the balloon had been airborne for about 35 minutes when the pilot began to descend the balloon in preparation for landing in the Somerset Rd area.

“The balloon changed direction several times as it descended to lower levels. At about 7.20am, the balloon descended to five to seven metres from the ground as it drifted over a silage paddock.”

The report said the paddock was surrounded on two sides by 9m tall power lines. It said the balloon had drifted near the paddock at a height of from 30m to 60m, heading in the opposite direction.

The report said the balloon had been drifting towards the power lines on the far road-end boundary when the wind changed.

“The pilot applied the burners to try to out-climb the power lines, but the basket of the balloon became entangled in them.”

The balloon became entangled with a power line and caught fire. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

It said an intense electrical arcing occurred, and fire erupted in the lower part of the basket.

“One of the balloon’s liquefied petroleum gas [LPG] fuel cylinders was ruptured by the electrical arcing, and escaping fuel intensified the fire.”

Former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark said he still struggled when he thought about that day.

“When I was given the responsibility of leading this community, I never expected I would wake up with a call that saying that a balloon went down, and no one survived.”

Mark said a remarkable amount of love came from the community after the tragedy.

“I’ve never seen such concentrated grief in thousands of people. The tragedy ripped the community, but out of it came a remarkable warmth.

“So many strangers rallied around to support the police, the victims’ families, fire, and me too.”

Sheryl Rule was a family member of one of the crash victims. Although there was no official commemoration of the 10-year anniversary, Rule’s family and several other victims’ families had spent some time at the memorial site on Somerset Rd.

She said they were grateful to the family who had allowed the front of their section to be used for the memorial.

“Our thoughts are with all the people who were involved in this incident, the first responders, the police and the community that rallied around to help us during the worst imaginable time.”

She said all their thoughts and love were with the other families affected by the tragedy.

Former Carterton Mayor Ron Mark is comforted by subsequent mayor John Booth. PHOTO/FILE

“Ten years feels like forever ago, and also just yesterday.”

Mark said it was clear when you lived in a rural community that everyone was connected in some way.

He said everyone had done the best they could to manage the situation and respond to international media.

He said those involved in the response shifted from working out of the fire station to the event centre.

“Victim support, councillors, fire, and civil defence, were all working in the same space.”

Mark said members of the community rallied together to help where they could.

“This is what I love about Carterton. The community cares about people they didn’t even know.”

He said he didn’t know everyone on that flight, but he came to know their families.

“Ten years on, I am still overwhelmed with absolute sadness.”

“Families are still grieving for a needless loss of life.”

Mark had been up in a balloon with the pilot, Lance Hopping, and said Hopping was great at helping people feel comfortable before a flight – especially those experiencing it for their first time.

He said Hopping had shown him the magic of ballooning.

“There was a great serenity, and it showed the beauty of Wairarapa.”

The report revealed traces of cannabis had been found in Hopping’s system, which had been caused by both long-term and recent use.

“While it is difficult to say how much each type of use contributed to the result, cannabis is known to affect a person’s judgement and decision-making ability.”

The report stated that poor judgment and decision-making had contributed to the crash.

“The commission found that the pilot’s use of cannabis could not be excluded as a factor contributing to his errors of judgement, and therefore to the accident.”

From the report, the coroner, Peter Ryan, recommended law changes to ensure a tragedy of this sort never happened again.

Mark said he was mindful of the first responders and what they had to deal with.

He said firefighters saw horrific things every day when responding to car crashes, suicides, and fires.

Mark said he wanted the Carterton community to remember how well emergency services had responded to the tragedy.

“I still like to think that the community would rise up again when people are in need.”

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