Five people died after a hot air balloon they were riding in hit power lines in New Mexico’s largest city and the gondola crashed to the ground, police said Saturday.
The crash happened around 7 a.m. on Albuquerque’s west side, police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said. No identities have been released, but fire officials said three men, including the pilot, and two females died.
Four of them were pronounced dead at the scene, and the fifth person died after being taken to the hospital in critical condition, Gallegos said.
The multi-colored balloon skirted the top of the power lines, sending at least one dangling and knocking out power to more than 13,000 homes, Gallegos said.
The gondola fell about 100 feet (30 meters) and crashed in the median of a busy street, catching on fire, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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.
Gallegos said hot air balloons can be difficult to manage, particularly when the wind kicks up.
“Our balloonists tend to be very much experts at navigating, but sometimes we have these types of tragic accidents,” he said.
Albuquerque is a popular destination 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 the January one, a 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.
By Felicia Fonseca