Hot Air Balloon Hits Power Line; NM Man Burned

Oct. 10--A hot-air balloon passenger suffered severe burns and underwent surgery on Wednesday after the balloon he was in brushed against some power lines in Rio Rancho -- sparking a small explosion and making nearby lights flicker.

Witnesses said the New Mexico Sunrise balloon, owned by Albuquerque pilot Mark Kilgore, 59, was coming in for a landing near Meadowlark Lane and Sara Way in Rio Rancho when it struck the power lines, then fell more than 40 feet. Kilgore and his lone passenger, 66-year-old Daniel Lovato, were sent to the hospital.

Lovato received severe burns to his face, chest and arms, according to a Rio Rancho Police Department spokeswoman. Kilgore received lesser burns to his head.

Lovato was in critical condition Wednesday night, according to a University of New Mexico Hospital spokeswoman. Kilgore was in "satisfactory" condition before asking that his information not be released to the public Wednesday afternoon.

New Mexico Sunrise launched with hundreds of other balloons -- part of Wednesday's mass ascension -- from Balloon Fiesta Park as part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The crash happened shortly after 8 a.m.

Students at the nearby ASK Academy, a charter high and middle school, watched the crash from atop the hill where their school sits. Students took iPhone photos of the crash and wrote about it for their school newspaper, The Catalyst.

ASK Academy 11th-grader Ryan Pipkin said he thought the balloon had landed, then realized that the gondola was being pulled against the power lines.

He said the balloon was losing air quickly, then he saw the pilot, later identified as Kilgore, try to pull the burner to keep the balloon inflated.

"I heard someone freaking out, and I saw that the basket of the balloon was leaning against the wires, and the balloon was losing air," Pipkin said.

"I saw it ignite, building up a ball of energy, and then it exploded," he said. "The gondola caught on fire for a brief second, and then it all went up and began to smoke, and then after that, everything just fell, not free falling, but it was falling fairly fast."

Pamela Correa, the school's general manager, was in a morning meeting when she saw the balloon smoking from the crash.

"I saw the balloon coming down. It looked like it was going to land," she said.

But then the lights went out for a moment, and she saw the balloon had pulled out its top and that its gondola was almost completely billowing with smoke.

She didn't see it hit the power lines and said it was already on the ground when she saw the smoke.

"You could tell that there was something wrong," she said.

The balloon's chase vehicle was at the site by the time the balloon hit the ground, witnesses said, and emergency crews responded very soon after.

Pipkin said that, after the balloon hit the ground, he heard someone from inside the gondola screaming for help, and a person from the chase crew yelling to call 911.

He said the Rio Rancho Fire Department then arrived, along with a group of several nuns from the nearby Daniels' funeral home who walked to the crash site.

The Balloon Fiesta has contacted the Federal Aviation Administration, which will investigate the crash, fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said. Also, Kilgore is required in the next 10 days to contact the National Transportation Safety Board, which will conduct its own investigation. He was not one of the pilots offering for-sale balloon rides at the fiesta.

The Balloon Fiesta will also conduct an independent inquiry into the crash, Garrity said. Pilots are given information about what to do if they come in contact with power lines, he said.

The accident is the most serious to date for this year's fiesta, which attracted more than 500 balloons from around the world and concludes Sunday.

Copyright 2013 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.