Friday, January 6, 2012

11 dead after hot air balloon crash in New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A hot air balloon crashed and killed all 11 people aboard near a rural New Zealand town some 94 miles (150 kilometers) north of the capital, Wellington, officials said Saturday.
Police confirmed "multiple deaths" when the balloon crashed, with two people leaping from the burning basket. Neither survived the fall, near show grounds north of the township of Carterton.
A Wellington police district commander, Superintendent Mike Rusbatch, said it appeared the balloon struck power lines that set a fire on board, causing the balloon to crash in farmland in clear, bright early morning conditions with minimal wind. The region is well known for its hot air ballooning.
There were five couples on board from the Wellington region, and the pilot.
Rusbatch said two people jumped from the basket before it hit the ground, but they did not survive. A number of the bodies had been badly burned.
"We believe we know who the victims were," he told the news Web site "Stuff," adding, "this is a significant event. A tragedy for those involved and their families."
Witnesses told local media of seeing 32-foot (10-meter) high flames rising from the balloon's basket before it plummeted to the ground.
Bevan Lambeth said the basket was on fire "and the power lines were holding the basket down, but it was still about 50 meters (165 feet) in the air. Then the whole basket started to go up in flames," as the balloon broke clear of the electric lines.
"I saw ... (it) then go straight up in the air and the flames just engulfed the whole balloon and it crashed to the ground. When it came down it came down really quickly ... after it was released from the lines," he told TVOne News.
Local resident David McKinlay was "watering the garden and heard a noise, the noise of the gas to raise the balloon. I looked over and I couldn't believe it — one side of the basket was on fire."
"It was just above the trees when I first saw it ... it looked like he (the pilot) tried to raise it a bit higher ... all of a sudden there was just 10 meters of flames," he said.
The dark blue and maroon striped balloon was about 500 feet (150 meters) in the air and dropped quickly, turning to "just a sheer flame as it hit the ground," where "there was a big bang," he said.
Rosalee Thurston was in a car with her husband and daughter when they saw "a puff of smoke in the sky and then flames as the balloon fell to the earth," she told TVOne News.
New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission manager Peter Northcote said the commission had opened an inquiry into the crash, with investigators already on the scene.
The Commission conducts safety-focused investigations to explain the causes of an accident and help reduce the likelihood of similar events.
Local media reported the fatal balloon crash as the worst aviation crash in New Zealand since the Nov. 28, 1979 Erebus disaster, when an Air New Zealand DC-8 airliner on a scenic flight slammed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 on board.

Dog found alive 4 days after Montana avalanche

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A dog that was feared dead after he was swept away in a weekend avalanche that killed his owner showed up four days later at the Montana motel where his owners had stayed the night before going backcountry skiing.
Search and rescue team member Bill Whittle said he was "positive" that the Welsh corgi — named Ole — had been buried in Saturday's avalanche.
"The avalanche guys were up there on Monday investigating and they were looking for the dog too and never seen any signs," he said.
But on Wednesday, Ole showed up exhausted and hungry back at the motel, four miles from where the slide occurred, the Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/zNaSeK) reported.
"When I first saw the dog, it was sitting in front of their room staring at the door," Cooke City Alpine Motel owner Robert Weinstein said in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday.
Dave Gaillard of Bozeman was skiing with his wife when the avalanche struck near Cooke City, an old mining town just outside Yellowstone National Park.
"His last words to me were, 'Retreat to the trees.' I think he saw what was coming from above, that I did not see," Kerry Corcoran Gaillard told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Gaillard's daughter, 11-year-old Marguerite, was putting photos of Ole on poster board as a memorial Wednesday afternoon.
"She found out when she was halfway done with that that Ole was still alive," said Gaillard's step-daughter, Silver Brelsford.
Whittle drove the dog back to the family in Bozeman.
"He was tired," Brelsford told the AP. "He's doing really well now."
Sidney resident Jody Ray Verhasselt, 46, also died Saturday in another avalanche while snowmobiling north of Cooke City. The two New Year's Eve avalanche deaths have taken a toll on the small mountain community.
"We needed this," Whittle said of Ole's survival. "It kind of cheered everyone up."
Searchers recovered Gaillard's body earlier this week. Family members were preparing for his funeral on Friday.
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Iran to hold new naval drill near strait of Hormuz

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran is planning new military exercises near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, according to a naval commander, after threatening to close the strait and completing another set of maneuvers.
One sixth of the world's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran's threat to close the passage if the West imposes sanctions on its own oil exports unsettled an already nervous world oil market.
The semiofficial Fars news agency late Thursday quoted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's naval commander, Adm. Ali Fadavi, as saying that the upcoming exercise would be the seventh staging of an annual drill called "The Great Prophet."
Fadavi said the next round of war games would be "different" from previous ones. He did not elaborate. The admiral said the drill would take place in the Iranian month of Bahman, which roughly corresponds to February.
The Guards, Iran's most powerful military force, have the same air, naval and ground branches as the regular military. They are also in charge of Iran's missile program.
Iran's navy ended a 10-day drill Tuesday in the waters off the Strait.
Military officers said the purpose was to show off Iran's prowess and defense capabilities.
The drill, including widely publicized missile tests, was carried out as international criticism mounts over Tehran's nuclear program. The West believes the program is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Iran denies that, insisting that it is for peaceful purposes.
The U.S. has recently tightened sanctions on Iran, banning transaction with Iran's central bank. That could cripple Iranian oil sales by limiting financial transactions.
Iran threatened to close the strait if the West tried to limit or stop Iran's own oil exports, which account for 80 percent of the country's public revenues.
The country regularly conducts maneuvers and has also been active in fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden.