NSW Police believe up to 24 people may have been in the basket of the hot air balloon when it crashed after hitting a tree while trying to land in the tourist town of Pokolbin.
The aircraft, operated by Balloon Safaris, came down on McDonalds Road about 8:00am.
Emergency services were not made aware of the incident until they were contacted by Cessnock Hospital, after nine of the injured arrived at the hospital by private transport.
By the time police attended the scene, the hot air balloon had been removed from the crash site.
Inspector Rob Post, from Hunter Valley Police, said he was unsure what processes the company had in place in the event of a balloon crash, but he would have expected them to call triple-0.
“I think it would be common sense to make that call if you have injured people on the ground,” he said.
It is the company’s second crash this year — in January four people were taken to hospital after one of their balloons had a “rough landing” near Cessnock, also in the Hunter Valley.
Inspector Post said police had attended the scene of today’s crash to gather evidence, but had not yet spoken to the pilot or owner of the company.
“The balloon was gone by the time police had arrived so it wasn’t actually on the scene,” he said.
When asked if the balloon should have remained in place he replied: “Some would argue, yes.”
He said police were not looking to lay any criminal charges in relation to the company’s failure to report the crash.
NSW Ambulance Inspector Luke Wiseman said nine people were initially taken to Cessnock hospital, with 11 presenting in total.
The injured were aged from seven to 38 years old, and injuries included suspected broken bones.
Two people with suspected spinal injuries were later transported to John Hunter Hospital in stable conditions for additional testing.
Inspector Wiseman said an ambulance later attended the scene to check whether anyone else had been injured.
He said in circumstances where people were injured, it was important that emergency services be called so patients could be properly assessed and triaged.
A hard landing
It had been windy and foggy in the area around the time of the crash.
Three balloons were in the air before the incident, each with about 20 passengers on board, plus a pilot.
Damian Crock, from the Professional Ballooning Association of Australia, has been in contact with the operator and said the incident was regrettable.
“Two balloons have landed without incident and the third balloon … as it’s heading towards its landing site, [has] come into contact with a tree,” he said.
Mr Crock said it appeared that the pilot had descended “faster than he would have liked to be descending” and had then experienced “a hard landing on the ground”.
“It’s certainly a regrettable incident and people have been injured, so we can definitely confirm that, but their injuries are not life threatening,” he said.
Balloon Safaris is owned by Balloon Aloft, which describes itself as Australia’s most experienced hot air ballooning company.
In January’s crash, an 80-year-old woman sustained multiple fractures and was trapped in the basket for 40 minutes.
Pokolbin, a popular tourist town, is the epicentre of the Hunter Valley’s wine region and about 160 kilometres north of Sydney.
Balloon Safaris has been contacted for comment.