Co-worker's surprise over balloon pilot's drug use

A man who worked with a hot air balloon pilot found to have cannabis in his system after his craft crashed, killing him and 10 passengers, had no idea he smoked the drug, a coroner's inquest has been told.

Clive Peters, the ground crew chief on the day of the Carterton balloon accident, gave evidence today on the fourth day of an inquest into the deaths of those on the flight.

Eleven people, including 53-year-old pilot Lance Hopping, were killed on January 7, 2012 after the balloon they were in struck power lines, caught on fire and crashed to the ground.

Mr Peters, who had worked with Mr Hopping for about six years, was directly below the balloon basket when it was tangled in power lines, his evidence showed.

A previous crash report from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission has already established errors made by Mr Hopping ultimately led to the balloon's demise.

Toxicology results also showed he had cannabis in his system at the time, and impairment from the drug could not be ruled out as being a factor in the mistakes he made.

Evidence given by Mr Hopping's friend earlier at the inquest showed Mr Hopping was a regular user of the drug.

Today, Mr Peters read a statement he made to police after the fatal crash.

He told the inquest, before Coroner Peter Ryan in Wellington, he did not know Mr Hopping smoked cannabis, and that the pilot took safety very seriously.

"He is very safety conscious. He would not fly a balloon if the situation was slightly dodgy."

He had also been appointed the overall safety officer for the Wairarapa Balloon Fiesta and "in general a good guy," Mr Peters said.

"I did not know Lance was using marijuana at all," he said.

His evidence covered details of the entire morning of the fatal flight, including a 10-15 minute period when Mr Hopping was alone in his shed.

"I cannot think of what Lance has to do in the shed," Mr Peters said.

He described the moments of the horrific crash.

"I turned around and saw the basket of the balloon was caught up on the top power line on Somerset Rd."

Mr Hopping was "burning a lot"in an attempt to lift the balloon off the power lines, he said.

"I was practically under the basket."

When he realised the wire was going to snap, Mr Peters ran away to avoid being electrocuted.

He also saw young couple Alexis Still, 19, and Chrisjan Jordaan, 21, jump from the basket after a fire, sparked by intense electrical arcing, broke out.

"I saw that she was tumbling when she was falling to the ground.

"I then saw a male jump out the basket as well. He jumped feet first."

Shortly after, the basket was engulfed in fire, and it was beginning to spread up the side of the envelope.

"Once the envelope was burnt, that was it. No one jumped down."

After the balloon crashed to the ground, Mr Peters kept his distance from the wreckage as there was a risk of further fire from LPG bottles on the balloon, he said.

"I could still see several bodies in the basket while it was burning."

The inquest, at the Wellington District Court, continues.

- Teuila Fuatai of APNZ

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