A former Albuquerque police officer and his wife are among the five people who died when the hot air balloon they were in struck power lines and crashed near a busy West Side intersection Saturday morning.
Martin Martinez, 62, and Mary Martinez, 59, were pronounced dead at the scene, along with the pilot and another female passenger, according to the Albuquerque Police Department. A man rushed to the hospital with severe injuries sustained in the the crash also died.
Gilbert Gallegos, an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman, said the deceased ranged from their 40s to their 60s. They were all from Albuquerque, authorities said.
Balloon chase crew members and others at the scene said they knew the pilot but did not give his name.
“This is just such a tragic loss,” fellow pilot Buzz Biernacki said, his face streaked with tears.
Martin Martinez retired from APD as a patrol officer and was currently a police sergeant for Albuquerque Public Schools. He and his wife have a son who is currently an APD transport officer.
APS Superintendent Scott Elder said Sgt. Martinez would “forever be remembered for his lifelong dedication, courage, and selflessness to the profession of law enforcement.”
“It is with a heavy heart that we share news of the sudden and tragic loss of Sgt. Martin Martinez and his wife Mary,” Elder said in a statement. “We extend our deepest condolences to the Martinez family as well as members of the APS Police Department who loved, admired, and respected Sgt. Martinez.”
Albuquerque Fire Rescue spokesman Tom Ruiz said AFR responded around 7 a.m. to the crash at Central and Unser NW. He said crews found that a balloon gondola had fallen 100 feet to the ground after striking the power lines. Four people were pronounced dead at the scene.
“One of the deceased male patients was the pilot of the balloon,” Ruiz said. “The balloon envelope was found at a separate location south of the incident. The cause of the initial crash is unknown at this time.”
He said the crash is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
“We know from experience here in Albuquerque that sometimes winds kick up or things happen that make it difficult for balloons to navigate,” Gallegos said of the incident. “We’re not sure the cause of this at this point. Obviously, the FAA will look into this and determine what the cause was.”
Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis, who was at the scene, said the basket came down at Unser and Central, but the envelope ended up south of that location. Pierre-Louis captured images of the envelope coming down in a residential neighborhood in the 7700 block of Javelina.
He said AFR was trying to render aid to one of the victims.
Several witnesses observed the scene in disbelief and appeared shaken.
“It’s just a very tragic situation,” Gallegos said. “Our officers who arrived first on scene had a tough time when they saw what they saw. These things are just horrible anytime they happen.”
Police have closed off the intersection of Central and Unser.
PNM is reporting that the crash caused a power outage affecting more than 13,000 customers in Southwest Albuquerque. Power has since been restored, according to the utility.