APS mourns 'unprecedented loss' - Albuquerque Journal

APS mourns ‘unprecedented loss’

Carla Gandara, Albuquerque Public Schools assistant police chief, left, is comforted by APS police Lt. Steven Marez during a press conference to discuss a balloon crash Saturday that killed five, including three APS employees. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Taking a ride in a hot air balloon was something that Susan Montoya always wanted to do, one of the adventures on her bucket list that she talked to friends and coworkers about.

So when word came down that the assistant principal at Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary School was transferring to another school, teachers and coworkers took it upon themselves to make that dream come true.

They chipped in to purchase a balloon ride for Susan and three guests as a farewell gift, said Scott Elder, superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools. “It was their way of showing Susan how much they loved and appreciated her.”

Mary and Martin Martinez

She invited her husband, John Montoya, and another couple they had become friends with through work, Mary and Martin Martinez.

Early Saturday morning, the two couples and pilot Nick Meleski boarded a hot air balloon and flew to their deaths.

At about 7 a.m., the balloon struck and severed an electrical power line. The gondola caught fire and crashed to the ground in a West Central intersection, killing four instantly and fatally injuring the fifth.

All five had connections to APS either through their jobs or their families.

Martin Martinez, 62, a retired Albuquerque Police Department officer, had worked as an APS police officer since 2003. His wife, Mary, was 59. Albuquerque police transposed their ages when they identified them on Saturday.

Susan and John Montoya

Susan Montoya, 65, was an assistant principal at Georgia O’Keeffe since 2015. Her husband, John, 61, had worked since 2015 as an educational assistant in the special education program at Sandia High School.

Meleski, 62, the pilot, is the father of an APS counselor at John Baker Elementary School.

John Montoya survived the crash but died of his injuries later Saturday at an Albuquerque hospital. The other four were pronounced dead at the scene.

APS officials speaking at a press conference Sunday wept and at times became too choked with emotion to speak.

Nick Meleski

APS Police Chief Steve Gallegos had to stop several times and gather his composure while recalling his friend and fellow officer, Martin Martinez.

“I have a script but I don’t want to read it,” he said. “I just want to say things about Marty.

“He loved his wife. He talked a lot about his wife, his two sons, and his two dogs.”

When Gallegos learned of the tragedy on Saturday, he gathered APS police officers to inform them.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Gallegos said. “When I mentioned his name, I had this blank look from everybody there. There was no noise, just a blank look. Disbelief.”

Gallegos and Martinez got to know each other as patrol officers at APD. They reconnected when Gallegos began work at APS in 2006.

“There was one thing about Marty you could always count on – he was the most honest guy I ever met in my life,” Gallegos said. “He will truly be missed.”

Superintendant Elder called the deaths an “unprecedented loss” for APS.

“Never before have we experienced the loss of so many in one incident,” he said.

Susan Montoya was to be transferred to Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School for the fall, APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.

Flowers and candles left by mourners Sunday near the scene of a balloon crash Saturday that killed five. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board inspect the balloon gondola in the background. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

On Sunday morning, the balloon gondola remained in a median near the intersection of Central and Unser as officials with the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash.

A makeshift memorial of flowers and candles had been set up in the median.

Albuquerque officials said Saturday that the gondola had fallen about 100 feet into the median after it struck power lines. The balloon envelope separated from the gondola and fell to the ground south of the intersection.

Federal officials on Sunday examine the balloon gondola at Central and Unser where four passengers and the pilot were fatally injured in a crash on Saturday.

A video posted to social media showed the gondola on fire and overturned in the median. Someone ran up with a fire extinguisher to put out the fire.

Jim Marable, a friend of John and Susan Montoya, said the couple was always willing to volunteer for any project.

“They had a heart for service,” said Marable, who knew the couple through the First Baptist Church of West Albuquerque. “They were dependable. They would be there if you needed them.”

Marable said Susan Montoya was excited about their upcoming balloon ride.

“John and Susan will leave a void,” Marable said. “They were everywhere and did everything.”

APS Police Chief Steve Gallegos, left, chokes up while discussing APS police officer Martin Martinez, who died in a balloon crash Saturday along with four others. At center is Kristine Meurer, executive director of APS student, family and community supports division, and Scott Elder, APS superintendent, right.

Susan Montoya’s sister, Sharon Wetmore, said the Montoyas were good natured and devoted to their church.

“I’m still in shock,” Wetmore said. “They were good people and helpful to everyone and happy all the time. It was a shock this happened.”

Rudolf Luers, speaking by phone from his home in Leubeck, Germany, said he was shocked to read of Meleski’s death in a German publication.

Luers, a former balloon pilot, got to know Meleski well at ballooning events in Albuquerque and Austria and during skiing trips they took together in Colorado.

“This is so tragic,” said Luers, 74. “Nick was unforgettable, really, and a great pilot. A great, supportive guy.”

The two didn’t know each other well in 1993 when Meleski picked up Luers at the Albuquerque International Sunport and was trusting enough to lend Luers his truck during the balloon fiesta.

“He trusted us,” Luers said. “He offered us his truck and mounted a German flag on it.”

Meleski was Luers’ first passenger in 1993, the year Luers got his balloon pilot’s license in Albuquerque. The two made a hard landing in their first flight together.

“I was very thankful that he was aboard and could help me,” Luers recalled. “Nick was a guy who was not shaken by anxiety.”

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