ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A breaking news bulletin cut in as Donnie Brainard, then 14, watched Balloon Fiesta coverage while eating breakfast with his grandmother. On the TV screen, a hot air balloon burst into flames. He saw two people hold each other as they fell to their deaths.
“I sure do feel sorry for the families of those people,” Brainard recalls his grandmother saying.
Those words still haunt him.
A few hours later, he learned that the two people he saw falling were his father and stepmother, Nick and Pamela Brainard. Pamela was four months pregnant.
The accident, the worst in Balloon Fiesta history, happened 30 years ago this October. Four people died, and five were injured. “It was such a traumatic event and such a huge event,” Brainard said, now 44, adding that it seems as if people had forgotten about it.
Since then, there have been other accidents at the fiesta, but none so catastrophic, in part because of the large size of the balloon, aptly named El Globo Grande. The 12-story-tall balloon was authorized to carry eight people, according to Journal stories from 1982, although it held nine people that day.
According to National Transportation Safety Board data, it appears there have been 11 balloon-related deaths at the fiesta, with the last one occurring in 2008.
That’s a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of safe balloon rides over the last 40 years of the fiesta.
“It’s a very safe form of aviation,” said fiesta executive director Paul Smith, who stressed the fiesta’s main focus is safety and said “even one death is too many.”
A memorial to lost balloonists is scheduled to be dedicated at Balloon Fiesta Park on Oct. 2.
Among those remembered will be the victims of El Globo Grande.
Clear, crisp morning
Sunday, Oct. 3, 1982, dawned crisp and clear. El Globo Grande — one of the largest standard hot air balloons made at the time — was owned and piloted by Joe Gonzales of Albuquerque. Also on the ride that day were Dick Wirth, designer of the craft, and Christina Robinson, a balloon seamstress, both of London. They had come along to observe after Gonzales had complained of problems, according to the FAA investigative report, cited in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
For many of the passengers, it was a last-minute flight.
Tom and Ann Speer, who lived in Lakewood, Colo., were introduced to the pilot that morning by Ann’s cousin.
C. Vincent Shortt, 35, from North Carolina, was at the fiesta promoting a motion picture he was producing called “Hot Heir.” He, too, arranged for a ride through an acquaintance. Barbara Mardyla, then 28, hitched a ride after meeting Shortt on the flight into Albuquerque.
The Brainards weren’t going to go to the fiesta grounds that day, Donnie Brainard recalled. Rather, they were planning to watch from the mountains. But Donnie remembers persuading them to go to the field, where they also nabbed spots on the flight.
The passengers clambered on, toting cameras with long telephoto lenses. Although mostly strangers, they chatted gaily through the hourlong flight. When, after 90 minutes, they appeared to touch down for a safe landing in a North Valley field, the ground crew broke out champagne to celebrate, according to a Journal story from 1982.
That’s when things began to go awry. Propane leaked out of a tank, hitting a burner and creating a fireball within the gondola while it was still on the ground.
It’s unclear in what order people began jumping — or were thrown — from the balloon. Shortt, Mardyla, Tom Speer and Gonzales all escaped while the balloon was low to the ground. Gonzales was on fire as he hit the ground. The heat and loss of weight caused the balloon to soar.
Ann Speer was still in the balloon as it ascended. Her husband recalls yelling: “Get out! Jump! Jump! Get out of there!” She finally flung herself from the gondola at about 30 feet in the air. He rushed under her to try to break her fall.
The others did not survive. Al Utton, the late University of New Mexico law professor who witnessed the event, said at the time that the remaining passengers were faced with “the cruel dilemma of being burned alive or jumping hopelessly.”
Christina Robinson and Wirth fell or jumped next. Nick and Pamela Brainard were the last to plummet to the ground.
Two propane tanks exploded after the balloon rose.
The probable cause report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that Gonzales had improperly made alterations to the balloon’s fittings and hoses attached to the propane cylinders. A subsequent report from the FAA was unable to determine whether a line or fitting in the fuel system had failed. Attempts to locate Gonzales for this story were unsuccessful.
Years to recover
Brainard said the crash put him into a tailspin that took years to recover from. He felt tremendous guilt for encouraging his dad and stepmom to go to the fiesta that day. He recently started writing about it on his blog as a way to confront his feelings.
“The level of guilt that I carried for the next 20 years was absolutely brutal,” he wrote. “No 14-year-old boy should ever have to shoulder this kind of responsibility. It warped my life in the most incomprehensible ways that you can think of. I feel incredibly fortunate to have survived.”
He said he’s been surprised by the popularity of the blog, where he also chronicles his daughter’s struggles with cerebral palsy and other aspects of his life. Brainard’s dad, Nick, was mostly absent from his childhood. But about a year before the accident, he and his wife, also called P.J., moved back to Albuquerque. Nick Brainard worked part-time at a law firm and part-time as a radio DJ.
In the blog, Brainard calls that year “the best 12 months of my life.” As an adult, Brainard has worked in the entertainment business and created the show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” He is currently working as an Albuquerque property broker at Maestas & Ward.
He said that, for many years, he didn’t talk about the balloon crash, but his wife encouraged him to write it down. His brother found the autopsy report and recently gave it to Brainard. He wrote that he was “rattled by the brutality inflicted on my dad’s young body.”
“It takes a lot of energy to relive it,” Brainard said. “It helped to get it out. It was very painful going through a lot of it again.”
Three decades later, the survivors say they’ve moved on, but the memory of the accident will probably never leave them.
Shortt, then 35, suffered burns to his head and left hand. When he returned to North Carolina, he forged ahead with two ballooning-related projects: organizing a balloon festival in North Carolina and producing “Hot Heir,” a balloon comedy. He moved away from balloon-centric projects after those were complete, producing TV shows on country inns and historic hotels.
He didn’t go on another balloon ride for 13 years, when he decided to return to the Balloon Fiesta.
“I just felt I didn’t want the last experience I had in a hot air balloon to be a negative one,” Shortt said by telephone from Virginia, where he now lives.
Ann Speer, now 64, still has rods in her back where she broke it in three places and some chronic pain. Her husband, now 72, estimates that she was in the hospital for about a month in Albuquerque and off work for several more months after that. They both returned to active lives, even giving ski lessons, and now live in Arizona.
“We both picked up and continued to move forward,” he said. “I don’t think it’s had any lasting effect other than just bad memories.”
Barbara Mardyla — now Gaiser — returned to Ohio with singed hair and eyebrows only to find out that the local radio station had reported her dead.
“So when I did go back to work, everyone was saying ‘Oh my gosh, we thought you were dead.'” she said.
She withdrew for a while and saw a counselor.
“I didn’t talk to reporters,” she said. ” I just kind of wanted to go home and hide.”
Her mom is turning 80 this year and wants to go on a balloon ride. Gaiser is still deciding whether she’ll go along.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal