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Balloon Hits Tower; 3 Escape Injury

By Russell Contreras and Leann Holt
Journal Staff Writers
    A hot-air balloon struck a 50,000-watt radio tower Sunday morning, forcing two frightened young passengers and its 69-year-old pilot to climb down 60 stories to safety as a breathless audience cheered on below.
    The three occupants, not physically injured by the accident, were visibly shaken when they touched ground.
    It was a dramatic finish to the final day of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
    The "Smokey Bear" balloon hit the 670-foot tower just west of the Balloon Fiesta Park around 8:30 a.m. as veteran pilot Bill Chapel of Albuquerque attempted to land, according to fiesta organizers.
    Just seconds before the crash, 10-year-old passenger Aaron Whitacre had laid his head on the side of the gondola to nap. The impact almost knocked the boy out of the basket, but Troy Wells, 14, immediately grabbed Aaron's sweat shirt to hold him in.
    "We're going to die! We're going to die!" yelled Aaron, as the basket swung violently from the tower.
    Josephine Stevens, who lives on the 10100 block of Second Street just south of the tower, said she saw the balloon hit and could hear Aaron's screams.
    "At first, it didn't hit me what had just happened," said Stevens, who also saw Smokey Bear lift off. "Then, I heard this loud swooshing sound and I heard people yelling. The tower was swinging back and forth."
    KKOB-AM, the radio station that uses the tower, immediately shut off power upon hearing of the accident.
    Chapel stopped the 600-pound gondola from swaying by reaching out and grabbing the tower with his hands. Chapel moved the basket close to the tower's ladder so Troy and Aaron could climb out.
    Richard Wilson, who also lives behind the tower, said he feared the gondola would fall from the tower. "Then, I could see people climbing down," Wilson said. "It was an amazing sight."
    Troy, a student at Rio Rancho Mid High, said once he started inching down the tower, he knew he'd be OK.
    But Aaron, visiting from Tucson, said the trip down got tough when helicopters of local TV stations arrived to record the unfolding event. He said wind from the helicopters shook the towers, making the climb more scary. "I was lucky I had sticky gloves on," Aaron said.
    Authorities later ordered the helicopters away.
    Both Troy and Aaron said they were more worried about Chapel, a retired forester, getting to safety.
    At the park, people stopped in their tracks, looked up and gasped as they saw the balloon dangling. The atmosphere changed instantly from one of carefree enjoyment to concern— especially when the word circulated that there were children stuck on the tower.
    Groups of people huddled around cameras with zoom lenses to watch what looked like ants inching down a blade of grass.
    Aaron said as they got closer to the ground, he could hear people cheering that he and the two others made it.
    Rescue workers used a bucket truck to help bring the three passengers down to safety. Upon touching down, the three were immediately embraced by crew members.
    "Bill's been flying for years," said Heather Aitken, a long-time photographer's assistant at the fiesta. "It just shows you that no matter how good a pilot you are, anything can happen."
    Aaron and Troy said they felt they would be OK because Chapel looked calm. "That calmed me down," said Aaron, who was on his first balloon ride. "Bill saved my life."
    Aaron said he was glad Chapel declined to allow Aaron's 6-year-old sister, Amanda, to ride the balloon this morning.
    The two boys have already been contacted by NBC's Today Show to tell their story.
    All three said they would be in a balloon again.
    Chapel said he would work to see that the Smokey Bear balloon returns to the fiesta.
    Fiesta spokeswoman Kathie Leyendecker said that the fiesta has been at the current site for nine years and that no balloons have ever hit the nearby radio towers.