Inquest hears harrowing account of balloon tragedy

Lance Hopping, who was piloting the balloon. Photo / APN
Lance Hopping, who was piloting the balloon. Photo / APN
The daughter of a couple who died in the Carterton balloon tragedy has told a Coronial inquest of watching the balloon catch fire before it plummeted to the ground.

She said she also told police she had seen the pilot, Lance Hopping smoking something on the morning of the fatal flight.

The inquest into the deaths of 11 people, killed after boarding the hot air balloon in Carterton on the morning of January 7, 2012, began today at the Wellington District Court.

The balloon struck power lines, caught fire and crashed to the ground.

Family members of those on board filled the public gallery at the coroner's court in the Wellington District Court today.

The coroner's inquest is the last of a series of investigations and reports into the crash. Details of the day have been thoroughly documented and analysed in previous investigations.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report found errors made by Mr Hopping, 53, ultimately resulted in the fatal crash that day. It also established he had cannabis in his system at the time of the accident.

Bronwyn Brewster's parents, Desmond and Ann Dean were on board the flight, and she told the inquest today of meeting them before the balloon launched at the Paua Shell Company.

She said she saw Mr Hopping smoking something and drinking a cup of coffee before the flight.

"I don't know what he smoked, though."

She could not smell the smoke, but she said there was no doubting what she saw.

Mrs Brewster told police about seeing Mr Hopper smoking after she found out about the toxicology report that confirmed cannabis in his system.

She told the inquest she hadn't thought about what she had seen until that moment.

She denied that what she thought was smoke was in fact steam from the coffee.

"He had a coffee cup in his left hand and a cigarette in his right hand."

Mrs Brewster also gave a harrowing account of watching the balloon hit the power lines and burst into flames.

"I was screaming and yelling out for mum and dad.

"I was screaming for someone to help them, but there was nothing anybody could do," she said.

"The balloon was like a wet, wet rag and it plummeted to the ground."

Photographs used as evidence at the hearing showed Mr Hopping had a six minute window of opportunity to smoke something before the flight.

Detective Inspector Sean Hansen, who was in charge of the Wairarapa Criminal Investigation Bureau at the time of the crash, said police did not believe Mr Hopping smoked cannabis on the morning of the flight, based on interviews police had conducted with other crew members.

He said people were also in the area with Mr Hopping and could have walked in on him smoking.

He told Coroner Peter Ryan that Mr Hopping had never come to police attention for smoking cannabis.

Following the positive toxicology result for cannabis, police put in "some work" to determine whether Mr Hopping was a frequent cannabis user.

"We were never able to determine that," Mr Hansen said.

The inquest is set down for four days.

- by Rebecca Quilliam 

 

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