People pay their respects near the site of the crash.CARTERTON, NZ – Two passengers plummeted to their deaths from a burning hot air balloon as it crashed to the ground in New Zealand’s North Island yesterday, killing nine others.

Emergency services were at the scene, near Carterton, within three minutes but could not help any of the victims, who had been coming to the end of a scenic 45-minute flight and hoping to land in a paddock about 7.25am.

The balloon hit power lines and the sparks started a fire in the basket, Wairarapa police Area Commander Inspector Brent Register said yesterday afternoon.

Two passengers, a man and woman, appeared to have jumped from the basket, he said.

The fire then flared and the balloon dropped sharply to the ground, killing the rest of the occupants.

The pair who jumped were found 200 metres from the balloon wreckage.

The victims were five couples, all from the greater Wellington area, and the pilot, reported to be Lance Hopping.

The trip was run by the Early Morning Balloons company, which operates in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa.

Some of the bodies were badly burned and disaster victim identification experts were working through the wreckage to identify them officially.

“It’s a very hard scene. Some of the bodies are very badly burned,” Inspector Register said.

Two bodies were taken to the mortuary at Wellington Hospital late yesterday, while the other nine were to remain at the scene overnight.

No names have been released as police contact next of kin.

It is not known how far the balloon fell.

Police have spoken to five witnesses to the crash so far.

Three company staff – there to retrieve the balloon after it landed – witnessed the flaming crash.

“This a huge, nationally significant event,” Inspector Register said earlier yesterday. “It’s a tragedy as bad as tragedies get.”

Resident David McKinlay could not believe what he saw when he looked up while watering his garden at 7.40am.

“There were flames licking up the basket on one side, up towards the guy ropes of the balloon itself and probably just about reaching the fabric of the balloon,” he said.

The balloon came down at speed and Mr McKinlay ran inside to alert emergency services.

“When I got back out I could just see the mass of flame where the actual balloon was on fire,” he said. “It had completely disintegrated and it was just a long – probably 10 or 15 metres long – trail of flame coming in towards the ground at colossal speed.”

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