5 dead after New Mexico hot air balloon crash

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (NewsNation Now) — A hot air balloon hit a power line and crashed onto a busy street in Albuquerque on Saturday, killing all five people on board, including the parents of an Albuquerque police officer, police said.

New Mexico State Police on Sunday identified the pilot as 62-year-old Nicholas Meleski and the four passengers as Susan Montoya, 65; John Montoya, 61; Mary Martinez, 59; and Martin Martinez, 62. The ages of the Martinez couple were reversed when authorities released their identities Saturday.

The basket crashed around 7 a.m. on a street corner in the city’s West Side neighborhood near a pharmacy, about six miles west of the Albuquerque International Sunport Airport, according to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The pilot, Meleski, was known for flying a multi-colored balloon with a Zia symbol which appears on the New Mexico state flag.

The retired UPS driver had been a licensed balloon pilot since 1994 and was a regular at the Balloon Fiesta.

Paul Fields, an Albuquerque resident who was friends with Meleski, said he was an amazing pilot who made every passenger smile.

“The skies will be a little less bright without him,” Fields said.

Martin Martinez had worked for Albuquerque police on bicycle patrol but more recently worked for the local school district, authorities said. Some Albuquerque officers who responded to the crash had worked with him and were sent home because it took a toll on them, said police Chief Harold Medina.

“It really emphasized the point that no matter how big we think we are, we’re still a tight-knit community and incidents like this affect us all,” Medina said.

The intersection where the balloon crashed was still cordoned off late Saturday afternoon. The multi-colored balloon had skirted the top of the power lines, sending at least one dangling and temporarily knocking out power to more than 13,000 homes, said police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos.

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The gondola fell about 100 feet and crashed in the street’s median, catching on fire, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Bystanders frantically called out for a fire extinguisher to put out the flames and prayed aloud, video posted online showed.

The envelope of the balloon floated away, eventually landing on a residential rooftop, Gallegos said. The FAA did not immediately have registration details for the balloon but identified it as a Cameron 0-120.

Authorities haven’t determined what caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to the scene Saturday who will look into the pilot, the balloon itself and the operating environment, said spokesman Peter Knudson. A preliminary report typically is available in a couple of weeks.

Albuquerque Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said hot air balloons can be difficult to manage, particularly when the wind kicks up.

“We know from experience here in Albuquerque that sometimes winds kick up or things happen that make it difficult for balloons to navigate,” Gallegos told reporters in a news conference.

The FAA along with police are investigating the accident.

Albuquerque is a mecca for hot air ballooning. The city hosts a nine-day event in October that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and pilots from around the world. It is one of the most photographed events globally.

Albuquerque-area residents are treated to colorful displays of balloons floating over homes and along the Rio Grande throughout the year. While accidents aren’t common, they happen.

Since 2008, there have been 12 fatal hot air ballooning accidents in the United States, according to an NTSB database. Two of those happened in Rio Rancho just outside Albuquerque in 2008 and in January of this year.

In January, one passenger was injured when he was ejected from the gondola after a hard landing and later died.

In 2016, in neighboring Texas, a hot air balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture in the central part of the state. All 16 people on board died. Federal authorities said at the time it was the worst such disaster in U.S. history.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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