Va. Responders Review Lessons From Balloon Crash

Responders in Caroline County knew there were risks with the balloon festival that killed three people. That's why there were so many ready to go at the kick off.

May 31--Caroline County emergency officials knew before the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival began earlier this month that there were risks involved with hot air balloons.

That's why, when the event kicked off May 9, there were lots of first responders ready to go at Meadow Event Park, just in case.

But the worst-case scenario that was a possibility before the event turned into a reality when one balloon hit power lines while trying to land that Friday night. It caught fire and exploded, killing three people.

Earlier this week, Caroline County Fire Chief Jason Loftus gave a report to the Board of Supervisors detailing the response to the fatal accident.

He noted that the county has proposed new restrictions for certain events, and they were testing them at the balloon festival.

The main difference is that local public-safety officials will take the lead with State Police assisting. Currently, State Police lead. Caroline officials will consider the change next month.

In addition, the department followed the county's existing public-safety plan in place for any emergency. "That identified who was going to be in charge, and that became very important for us," Loftus said.

Over the weekend of the crash, more than 20 agencies responded to assist--but the local public-safety officials stayed in control and managed the situation, he said.

Loftus described to the board how the department worked with surrounding jurisdictions' 911 command centers. "One of the things we learned is most people will call in a balloon disaster on a regular landing," he told supervisors.

"A lot of times, they [balloons] skim the trees when they come in and people see that, and when they [balloons] drop behind the horizon and drop behind the trees and they [witnesses] think they're going to crash," he said.

So the various 911 centers were given a list of public-safety answering points.

"We said, 'If you get any calls in your command center about the balloons, filter it down to the command center at Meadow Event Park so we could call the pilot and try to deal with that issue," Loftus told the board, noting that before the event, the command center was planned at the launch site.

Another point Loftus made to the board was that it was crucial that they developed a relationship with the balloon pilots association before the event.

"We sat down with the promoter and balloonists and made sure we had a solid emergency-management plan before the event started," Loftus said.

The sheriff's office, the department of fire, rescue and emergency management, and the Virginia State Police communicated with the balloon pilots association beforehand "so we could understand the risks of propane and all of the risks associated with landing," he said.

There were 13 balloons that took flight Friday. All but one landed safely.

The balloon that crashed took flight about 8 p.m. and was piloted by Daniel T. Kirk, with two passengers, Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis.

The balloon flew 3.7 miles before it struck REC power lines while attempting to land.

Loftus said it was a propane line, not a gas line, that ruptured on the balloon. And the propane expanded rapidly. Because of that, the balloon rose uncontrollably.

And because it rose so quickly, the path of the balloon changed--the winds are different at higher altitudes.

Loftus said he brought a balloon expert to the scene and it made a huge difference. He's the one who knows about the wind and weather conditions, the balloons, the tanks used, is involved in the planning and oversees the entire event, Loftus noted.

The chief said he was glad he had established the relationship with him at the beginning of the process.

The expert helped Loftus look at possible paths of the balloon after the fire. "I probably would have taken a path that goes along straight," Loftus said. Instead, the actual path veered to the northeast.

He said officials considered the winds, the path of the balloon and the trajectory in estimating where the craft might have crashed.

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