Albuquerque Journal

Community grieves balloon crash deaths that touched so many

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As often with tragedy, there are questions. Why did a veteran pilot’s hot air balloon hit a power line and plunge to Earth near a busy West Central intersecti­on early Saturday, killing all aboard?

Presumably, a National Transporta­tion Safety Board investigat­ion already underway will provide answers — important for a community with a major part of its identity associated with hot-air ballooning. For now, it is time to collective­ly mourn the victims and acknowledg­e the special place they held in the community.

The ill-fated ride was a gift to Susan Montoya, 65, who was moving from her post as assistant principal at Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary in the Northeast Heights to LBJ Middle School on the West Side. A balloon ride had been her dream, so co-workers purchased it for her and three guests as a farewell gift.

Susan asked her husband, John Montoya, 61, who had worked since 2015 as a special education assistant at Sandia High, to fly with her. They invited another couple they had become friends with through work, Mary and Martin Martinez. Martin Martinez, 62, was a retired Albuquerqu­e Police Department officer who was a sergeant in the APS police force. Mary, a Valley High School graduate, was a licensed Zumba instructor who volunteere­d at North Valley Senior Center and Albuquerqu­e churches, according to her Facebook profile. She was 59.

All the deceased had ties to Albuquerqu­e Public Schools. Superinten­dent Scott Elder says it’s an “unpreceden­ted loss” for APS.

The pilot has been identified as Nick Meleski, 62, a man who has flown balloons all over the world and had a reputation built on expertise and safety. Chris Jones, a Texas-based balloon pilot, said Meleski had a “wonderful skill set” and had flown thousands of hours. Another colleague described him as “the safest pilot” and said, “I cannot believe this has happened.” Meleski also had an APS connection. His son is a counselor at John Baker Elementary.

Little is known about Saturday’s flight before it struck and severed an electrical power line about 7 a.m at Central and Unser. The gondola caught fire and crashed to the ground. Only John Martinez survived the initial collision with the power line and crash, but he succumbed to his serious injuries in a hospital later that day.

The scene was both chaotic and horrific; it occurred at a major intersecti­on and some of the first responders knew at least one of the victims. APD said “multiple officers had to be sent home due to what they had witnessed.” Our collective sympathies extend to the first responders, as well as the families of the victims. PNM on Monday donated a total of $100,000 to the families of the victims.

Even though we know there is inherent risk involved in hot-air ballooning, we can be forgiven if we watch those colorful dots against blue sky without thinking of potential tragedy. The most recent fatal accident here was in 2008 when one man was killed and another injured when their balloon hit a power line in Bernalillo. Power lines have been involved in five of the seven area accidents involving fatalities dating to 1979. The worst disaster in Balloon Fiesta history occurred in 1982 when propane tanks on El Globo Grande exploded, killing four people and injuring five.

The NTSB has sent two investigat­ors to the scene. They will look at the possibilit­y of pilot error, the balloon itself and the operating environmen­t, a spokesman said. Families of the victims, balloonist­s and the community at large will be waiting for the investigat­ion results. For now, it is time to grieve for all involved.

“I’m incredibly saddened to hear of this terrible tragedy,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said. “My prayers are with the loved ones of those affected.” In those sentiments, she speaks for all of us.

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