Eleven people have died after a hot air balloon crashed near the city of Carterton on the North Island of New Zealand, according to local media.

Witnesses and police said that the balloon hit electric power lines, exploded into flames and then plunged earthward, killing all aboard.

The site of the crash, the Wairarapa region, which is located about 50 miles north of the capital city of Wellington, is popular with balloon enthusiasts. Local media also reported that the accident occurred during calm, clear weather conditions.

According to New Zealand media, the dead comprised the pilot and five couples from Wellington.

Associated Press identified the pilot as Lance Hopping, who reportedly was widely respected for his experience and attention to safety.

Police will not release the names of the other victims until their families have been notified.

An eyewitness named Bevan Lambess told Reuters news agency: The wicker basket was on fire and I saw something holding it down -- it looked like ropes but I got closer and it was actually the top [electric] power line that was holding the basket down.”

The superintendent of Wellington police Mike Rusbatch told local media that it appeared two of the people may have jumped out of the balloon’s basket as it descended.

Another witness, David McKinley, told state broadcaster TV- New Zealand: It was just above the trees when I first saw it… All of a sudden there was just 10 meters of flames. It was like a rocket coming down. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There were flames licking up the side of the basket, right up the guy-ropes, There was a big, long pencil-like flame maybe 20 meters long, heading towards the ground at a terrible speed.”

It is believed to be the worst air disaster involving New Zealanders since 1979, when all 257 passengers aboard an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight crashed into Mt. Erebus in Antarctica.
It's a very sad time for all balloonists, said Martyn Stacey, president of the Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand in a statement.

On the whole, aviation-wise, ballooning is one of the safest forms of flying.

New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission is commenced an investigation into the tragedy.

We are deeply sorry to learn of this tragic accident and our hearts go out to those who are now mourning the loss of life, New Zealand’s Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said in a statement.

He added that experts will be looking to learn any lessons from the investigations ... which can help improve safety for others in the future.”