THE bodies of all 11 victims of a horror hot air balloon crash in New Zealand‘s Wairarapa region have been removed from the scene.
The last four bodies that had remained at the Somerset Road site after Saturday’s accident were taken to Wellington’s mortuary on Monday evening, police say.
The 10 passengers and pilot, all from the greater Wellington region on the southern end of North Island, had been on an early morning scenic flight around Carterton when things went wrong.
The crash is the country’s worst air disaster since the 1979 Mt Erebus crash.
The Carterton crash claimed the lives of four couples – Stephen Hopkirk and Belinda Harter, Howard and Diana Cox, Desmond and Ann Dean, and Johannes Jordann and Alexis Still – along with cousins Valerie Bennett and Denise Dellabarca, and pilot Lance Hopping.
Wairarapa police Area Commander Inspector Brent Register says the scene will continue to be examined over the next few days, while the disaster victim identification process was underway and would take some time to complete.
Police and other agencies met with the victims’ families on Monday morning to update them on their investigations.
“Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the deceased as they continue to come to terms with this tragic accident,” Insp Register says.
Police were unable to comment further as the matter was now in the hands of the coroner.
They were working alongside the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) team, which spent Monday carrying out its own detailed examination.
TAIC spokesman Peter Northcote says packing evidence for transport to a secure facility could take until Thursday.
Transport Accident Investigation Commission investigations, which determine the causes of air crashes and make any necessary safety recommendations, generally take between six months and a year.
The hot air balloon ride was meant to be a surprise birthday present for one of the victims, Stephen Hopkirk, as he celebrated his 50th birthday on Saturday.
His parents, Merle and Bob – who were celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary the same day – were waiting to greet their son and his partner, Ms Harter, when they returned.
Mr Hopkirk’s sister, Ruth McIntosh, says her brother was an easygoing man, with a kind heart.
“He was the one his family and friends called on to help them and he never said ‘no’,” Mrs McIntosh says.
He had cared for his late wife, Pam, through a long illness, and since meeting Ms Harter, the pair had been inseparable, Mrs McIntosh says.
They enjoyed outdoor activities and had bought a bus with a plan to put their jobs on hold and go exploring, and had just returned from a mountain biking trip ahead of the hot air balloon ride, she says.