ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — 9:08 — Daniel Lovato, the 66-year-old crew chief on the New Mexico Sunrise balloon, is in critical condition according to University of New Mexico hospital officials.
Officials at Balloon Fiesta Park said that the New Mexico Sunrise balloon hit a power line Wednesday morning near Meadowlark Lane and Sara Way in Rio Rancho.
Two men riding in the the balloon’s gondola suffered burns. One of the men was burned severely to his chest, face and arms. The second man received lesser burns to his head.
Both men have been transported to the hospital.
Mark Kilgore, 59, of Albuquerque is owner and pilot of New Mexico Sunrise. Kilgore is in “satisfactory” condition, according to the University of New Mexico Hospital.
Daniel Lovato, 66, was serving as the crew chief on balloon. Lovato’s condition is unclear.
New Mexico Sunrise is balloon number 193 and it launched this morning from the “P-10″ position.
According to the Rio Rancho police, Kilgore may have been attempting to land the balloon near Sara Way when the gondola hit the power line.
Pamela Correa, general manager of the nearby Ask Academy, was in a morning meeting when she saw the balloon smoking about a quarter-mile down the hill from her building.
“I saw the balloon coming down. It looked like it was going to land,” she said.
But then the lights went out for a moment, and she saw the balloon had pulled out its top and that its gondola was almost completely billowing with smoke.
She didn’t see it hit the power lines and said it was already on the ground when she saw the smoke.
“I could just see the blown-out piece and the smoke,” she said, referring to the top of the balloon. “And you could tell that there was something wrong.”
She said the balloon chase crew was there the moment the balloon landed and emergency crews responded extremely quickly. She did not see anyone emerge from the gondola.
“You’ve seen pictures of it when things go wrong,” she said. “But I’ve personally never witnessed it until now.”
Ask Academy 11th grader Ryan Pipkin said he thought the balloon had landed, but then realized that the gondola was leaning against the power lines, while the envelope was providing weight to the opposite direction, keeping the gondola suspended tightly against the power lines.
“I heard someone freaking out, and I saw that the basket of the balloon was leaning against the wires, and the balloon was losing air,” Pipkin said.
“The balloon started going down because the balloon didn’t have air in it to keep it floating,” he said. “Then I think he panicked because I saw him pull on something, and I saw it ignite, building up a ball of energy and then it exploded.”
“The gondola caught on fire for a brief second and then it all went up and began to smoke, and then after that, everything just fell, not free falling, but it was falling fairly fast,” he said.
Pipkin said it appeared as if the pilot was trying to ignite propane to get more lift in the balloon in an attempt to free it from the power lines when a ball of flame exploded in the gondola.