Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Albuquerque Accident

California woman dies in balloon accident in New Mexico

By TIM KORTE

The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

A California woman fell at least 70 feet to her death Monday and three other women were hospitalized, two with broken legs, after a hot air balloon they were aboard snagged a utility line during the city's annual balloon fiesta.

The woman who died and the other three women were from Oceanside, Calif., north of San Diego.

"Our balloon community is a close-knit family and a time like this is difficult for all of us," said Gary Bennett, president of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The balloon named "Heavenly Ride" became caught on a utility line at 7:45 a.m. The pilot threw down a tether to a pickup truck on the ground in an apparent attempt to reel the balloon down and free it, a state police spokesman said.

But the tether broke and the balloon bounced back up, causing its gondola to tip. The woman fell more than 70 feet.

"It probably was a lot higher than that," state police Sgt. Kevin Bruno said. "That's just an estimate."

Paramedics tried to revive the woman, Rosemary Wooley Phillips, 60, in a dirt field where she fell. She was pronounced dead a short time later at University of New Mexico Hospital.

Bill Birkley of Albuquerque was driving to visit a client when he saw the balloon flying low and fast, then getting snagged in the utility line "like a fish hook."

He stopped his vehicle and was standing about 100 feet from the trapped balloon when he saw Phillips fall.

"She was screaming and flailing her arms," Birkley said. "It was the most helpless feeling in the world. There she was, coming down through the air, and there wasn't a thing you could do for her."

The balloon, meanwhile, came free and drifted across a road near Interstate 25. It crash-landed, inflicting injuries on the other passengers and a pilot. Bruno said two women had broken legs and another had minor bumps and bruises.

The three were admitted to University Hospital, he said. The pilot sustained minor scratches and was treated at the scene.

The women booked the flight through Rainbow Ryders, a concessionaire contracted to provide flights from the fiesta's launch field.

A company official, Scott Appleman, said pilot Tom Reyes had 30 years' experience and more than 1,900 flying hours.

Authorities were careful not to assign immediate blame on winds, saying an investigation was continuing. Yet hot air balloons, which don't have engines like an airplane or helicopter, are entirely subject to the wind.

"Wind is part of the unknown. Weather is part of the unknown, relative to hot air ballooning, all the time," Appleman said.

The crash site is about three miles south of the launch field, where flights were halted later in the morning after winds exceeded the maximum allowed 10 knots.

Organizers said the crash had no relation to the decision to halt flights. Meteorologists monitor weather conditions each day and information is presented to pilots, who otherwise can decide if they'll launch.

"If the wind gets to a certain level, 10 knots, then we'll stop operations," fiesta executive director Paul Smith said.

At the launch field, balloonists expressed condolences for the victim's family.

"It puts a bit of a cloud over the fiesta," said pilot Chris Hinde of Rugby, England, flying in Albuquerque for the 10th year. "People always ask if we should keep going. We made the decision not to fly today after we heard the news."

One woman was killed during the 1998 event when a balloon plowed into two sets of power lines before plummeting about 30 feet to the ground at Kirtland Air Force Base on Albuquerque's south side.

During the 1993 fiesta, two men were killed when their balloon hit power lines, severing the gondola, which plunged about 90 feet to the ground. Two other men died during the 1990 fiesta when their balloon crashed into power lines and burst into flames.

Four people died and five were injured during the 1982 fiesta when propane tanks on a large balloon exploded.

Balloonists, however, say such fatalities are rare and that their sport is not particularly dangerous.

"It's no riskier than driving a car," said pilot Anthony Haynes of Houston. "It's a sad thing when it happens. But when you see a car accident, you don't stop driving."

The fiesta, meanwhile, remained on schedule and a telephone recording at Rainbow Ryders said all flights would take off Tuesday as planned.

"All we can do is be safe in our planning and execution as best we know how," Bennett said.

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On the Net:

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta: http://www.balloonfiesta.com

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Associated Press Writer Melanie Dabovich contributed to this report.

Published: Monday, October 8, 2007 16:17 PDT

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