SURREY, British Columbia – A hot air balloon caught fire over western Canada, forcing screaming passengers to leap to the ground, some with their clothes in flames, witnesses said. Police said two people died and 11 were injured.
Police said 12 passengers and a pilot were on board when the balloon crashed Friday evening in a recreational vehicle park in Surrey, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver.
All but two of the people on the balloon were initially located and taken to area hospitals with serious but non-life-threatening injuries, police said. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Roger Morrow told Canadian television Saturday the two dead were the ones that were initially missing.
Witnesses said the balloon caught fire shortly after takeoff and passengers jumped out almost immediately. It then exploded in a fireball and shot up into the air, they said. Shortly after, the burning balloon plunged to ground, leaving a tail of thick black smoke in its wake.
"The thing went up about 400 feet in the air at which point it melted enough of the balloon — it collapsed," said Don Randall, a resident of the trailer park who took pictures of the scene. "The basket was basically a fireball. It just dropped like a stone," he added.
"I'm just thinking, 'Oh geez, I hope there's nobody in that thing. It's basically a burning death up there,"' he said.
Smoke could be seen billowing from the crash site from miles (kilometers) away.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known. Weather conditions were clear at the time of the sunset flight.
"People were screaming and trying to get out," Frank Hersey said Friday night near a grassy field where several of the injured were being attended to by ambulance crews.
Perry Kendall said he saw what looked like something out of a movie.
"It was horrifying," said a shaken Kendall. "Just looking at people screaming and jumping out of there. Some of them, I think, had fire on their clothes. It was just awful."
Witnesses also propane tanks from the balloon fell on the Hazelmere RV park below, setting fire to three trailers and several vehicles. No one was reported hurt in those blazes.
Betty Nicholson, a spokeswoman for the Ambulances services, said the three most seriously injured victims have burns and internal bleeding. She was told most of them jumped out before the balloon was engulfed in flames.
The hot-air balloon, which CTV reported was operated by Fantasy Balloons Charters based in Langley, British Columbia, was one of several balloons in flight at the time.
Company spokesman John K. George said he does not know why the balloon caught fire shortly after takeoff.
"The company deeply regrets this evening's incident and all injuries associated with it (and) inconvenience to those people being displaced," George said.
The Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
A similar incident occurred earlier this month in the central Canadian province of Manitoba, Manitoba, where 12 people were injured.