Friday, October 10, 2008
Balloon Crash Kills One, Critically Injures Another
By Heather Clark
BERNALILLO A hot air balloon today crashed into power lines and burst into flames, killing one of two men thrown from the basket and critically injuring the other, during Albuquerque's annual balloon fiesta.
Two people — a pilot and a passenger — were aboard the Wings of Wind balloon when it crashed, said Kathie Leyendecker, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is held each October.
Photo Courtesy Jill Barone The Wings of Wind balloon at the moment of impact.
Killed in the crash was Stephen Lachendro. Keith Sproul was critically injured in the accident, Leyendecker said.
Leyendecker said she did not know where the victims were from, nor who was flying the balloon. The balloon was registered to a New Jersey pilot, she said.
Lachendro was found dead at the scene lying on the side of a ditch, Sproul was unconscious and was flown by helicopter to a local hospital, authorities said. A hospital spokesman said Sproul was in critical condition this afternoon.
Glenn Vonderahe of Rio Rancho saw the balloon land, then bounce back up and hit some power lines just west of N.M. 528 in Bernalillo, a community north of Albuquerque.
"I couldn't believe it," Vonderahe said. "I saw the balloon and the next thing I knew there was a lot of fire and smoke. There was total fire under the balloon."
The balloon was stuck in the lines for a time, then Vonderahe saw the balloon portion — called the envelope — float away with blazing fuel tanks ablaze and without the basket.
Horrified onlookers during morning rush hour watched as the balloon floated north along the highway with its fuel tank ablaze. The tank fell off the balloon just north of the initial crash site.
Vonderahe said at one point he feared the burning debris would fall on him.
"Debris was flying everywhere," he said.
Terri Bordelon of Sterlington, La., and her husband had stopped to watch the balloons overhead Friday, then she heard a "big boom" and saw someone jump or fall from the gondola.
"I was excited to see all the balloons, but to have it end like that, I was just shaking like a leaf and my legs felt like Jell-O," she told The Associated Press.
Rio Rancho Police spokesman John Francis said the balloon envelope drifted about 15 miles north before falling to the ground on San Felipe Pueblo.
A New Mexico National Guard Blackhawk helicopter in the area to help with fiesta security followed the balloon envelope as it drifted, then landed when it came down to secure the site until the National Transportation Safety Board could investigate the crash, said National Guard Lt. Col. John Fishburn.
The yellow, brown and orange balloon, shaped like an upside down triangle, was among hundreds of balloons participating in Friday's events at the balloon fiesta, which runs through Sunday.
Witnesses said winds had picked up a bit and many of the balloons were flying low right before the crash.
Rio Rancho Fire Battalion Chief Paul Bearce said the fire department received four reports of hard landings within a 15 minute period Friday morning.
In another crash landing, an 11-year-old boy was injured and flown to a local hospital after he became entangled in the ropes and was dragged along the ground for about 20 feet, Bearce said. No condition report on the boy was available.
The festival, held each October, is Albuquerque's pre-eminent tourist draw. It hosts hundreds of balloons and pilots, and draws tens of thousands of visitors to the city.
The city's first balloon festival was held in April 1972 in a parking lot at a shopping mall, with 13 balloons taking flight. The next year it formally was named the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta; balloons from 13 countries took part in the "First World Hot Air Balloon Championships" held at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Gas balloons became part of the festivities in 1981.
The fiesta has had fatalities before.
During last year's event, a 60-year-old Oceanside, Calif., woman fell at least 70 feet to her death and three other women were hospitalized after their balloon snagged a power line.
During the 1998 fiesta, one woman was killed when a balloon plowed into two sets of power lines before plummeting about 30 feet to the ground. In 1993, two men were killed during the fiesta when their balloon hit power lines, severing the gondola, which plunged about 90 feet to the ground.
Two men died during the 1990 fiesta when their balloon crashed into power lines and burst into flames. And four people died and five were injured during the 1982 fiesta when propane tanks on a large balloon exploded.
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