WELLINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - A hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand early on Saturday, killing all 11 people on board in the country's worst air accident in more than three decades.
Police said the balloon appeared to have caught fire before crashing into farmland near Carterton, about 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Wellington on New Zealand's North Island.
"Sadly the pilot and 10 passengers onboard have not survived," Wellington District Commander Superintendent Mike Rusbatch said.
The accident occurred just before 7.30 am in calm, clear weather in a region well known for hot air ballooning.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There were flames licking up the side of the basket, right up the guy-ropes," David McKinlay told state-run Television New Zealand.
When the flames reached the canopy, the balloon plunged to the ground, he said.
"There was a big, long pencil-like flame maybe 20 metres (65 feet) long, heading towards the ground at a terrible speed," McKinlay added.
Another witness told Fairfax NZ News he had seen the balloon passing overhead and waved before it appeared to clip power lines. Power was cut to the region for a period.
Two victims were reported to have jumped from the burning balloon shortly before it crashed.
Police, who have cordoned off the crash site, said five couples from across the wider Wellington region as well as the pilot were on board. They are not yet releasing the names of the victims until all family members have been informed.
The accident is the New Zealand's worst air disaster since an Antarctic sight-seeing flight crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board.
"It's a very sad time for all balloonists," said Martyn Stacey, the president of the Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand.