Deadly balloon crash at annual fiesta

October 10, 2008 5:45:05 PM PDT
A hot air balloon crashed into power lines and burst into flames Friday during Albuquerque's annual balloon fiesta, throwing both men on board to the ground and killing one of them. Witnesses said that many of the balloons were flying low right before the Wings of Wind balloon crashed in Bernalillo, just north of Albuquerque.

Stephen Lachendro of Butler, Pa., was killed and Keith Sproul of North Brunswick, N.J., was critically injured. Kathie Leyendecker, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, said she did not know who was piloting the balloon.

Lachendro was found dead at the scene on the side of a ditch; Sproul was unconscious and taken to the hospital, Rio Rancho Fire Battalion Chief Paul Bearce said.

"I couldn't believe it," said Glenn Vonderahe, a witness. "I saw the balloon and the next thing I knew, there was a lot of fire and smoke. There was total fire under the balloon."

He first saw the balloon land, then bounce back up and apparently hit some power lines, he said. The balloon was stuck in the lines for a time, and then Vonderahe saw the balloon portion - called the envelope - float away, a burning tank still attached.

"Debris was flying everywhere," he said. The tank fell harmlessly to the ground, and the drifting envelope was eventually found about 15 miles away.

Witnesses said winds had picked up just before the crash. But Leyendecker said conditions at the field in Albuquerque where the balloons take off were ideal, about 6 to 8 mph.

The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, said National Guard Lt. Col. John Fishburn.

Lachendro was a father of two sons and a daughter and enjoyed ballooning with friends, said his daughter, Amanda Lachendro.

"I just want everyone to know that he loved what he did," she said, declining to comment further.

"It's horrible and saddening when something like this occurs," Leyendecker said. "But this sport has been around for 225 years. There's a sense of adventure and a lot of education and training that goes into this."

The yellow, brown and orange triangle-shaped balloon was among hundreds participating in Friday's events at the balloon fiesta, which will run through Sunday as planned.

"I was excited to see all the balloons, but to have it end like that, I was just shaking like a leaf and my legs felt like Jell-O," said witness Terri Bordelon of Sterlington, La.

There were several reports of hard landings. In one of them, an 11-year-old passenger was injured after he became entangled in the ropes and was dragged along the ground for about 20 feet, Bearce said. The boy's condition was not immediately known.

The festival, held each October, is Albuquerque's pre-eminent tourist draw. Growing from a 1972 gathering at a shopping mall parking lot, it now hosts hundreds of balloons and pilots and draws tens of thousands of visitors to the city.

But it has had fatalities before, mostly from balloons hitting power lines. Last year, a 60-year-old Oceanside, Calif., woman fell at least 70 feet to her death and three other women were hospitalized after their balloon snagged a power line.

In 1982, four people died when propane tanks on a large balloon exploded. Other fatalities were recorded in 1990, 1993 and 1998.