Tue, August 28, 2007
Barry McGonigle of Belmont-based Sundance Balloons says safety is always a top priority.
By HANK DANISZEWSKI, SUN MEDIA
When a hot-air balloon went down in flames in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey last Friday, Barry McGonigle got the news first and it hit hard.
One of his own Sundance balloons was in the air nearby at the time.
The horrified Sundance pilot saw the fatal accident and called McGonigle immediately on a cellphone.
McGonigle and his wife, Judy, then watched the television coverage back in London.
"It unfolded before my eyes just like 9/11 when the jets went into the towers. It was just a horrendous night for us," said McGonigle, president of Belmont-based Sundance Balloons, the largest hot-air balloon business in North America.
A fire broke out in the balloon's gondola before it plummeted into a trailer park, destroying several mobile homes. Shannon Knacksted and her daughter, Gemma, of Langley, B.C., were killed.
And although the tragedy involved a rival company, McGonigle said it has tarnished the reputation of the entire industry and comes just two weeks after the worst accident in Sundance's 25-year history.
A Sundance balloon flying near Winnipeg made a hard landing, injuring 11 passengers. The pilot and a passenger suffered the most serious injuries from the balloon's propane burner.
McGonigle believes the passenger involved in the Winnipeg accident has been released from hospital, but the pilot is still facing weeks of treatment for his burns.
Both the Vancouver and the Winnipeg accidents are being investigated by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
Earlier this year, a London woman was killed when she fell from a hot air balloon in California.
Sundance Balloons operates 2,500 to 3,000 recreational flights in 14 Canadian centres and carries about 12,000 passengers a year.
The company also manufactures balloons, but did not make the balloons involved in either the Vancouver or Winnipeg accidents.
Sundance has suspended its own flights in Vancouver since the accident as a sign of respect for the victims.
Footage of the plunging, fiery balloon in Vancouver was shown repeatedly on cable networks. McGonigle was interviewed by NBC news following the Vancouver accident and explained the strict safety rules governing the industry.
"All we can tell people is we live our lives by safety. But we are concerned this will scare some people away," said McGonigle, noting the design and manufacture of hot-air balloons is tightly regulated and accidents are rare.
McGonigle said he has not noticed any significant decline in bookings since the accidents but said the situation has been complicated by poor weather, which normally puts a damper on business.
"It's too early to tell."