Bystanders frantically engaged in a "tug of war" to free a balloon snagged on a cable Monday in the minutes before a California woman plunged more than 60 feet to her death.
It was the first fatal accident to mar the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in more than a decade.
Click for photos from eyewitness Doug Malloy and audio of him describing the scene.
[+] Click for slideshow from the scene Balloon #049 caught on an above-ground cable near the intersection of Montano and I-25. A woman fell to her death from the balloon when it suddenly broke free from the cable. (Above photos by Doug Malloy/For the Journal)
Witnesses said the woman was hurled from the balloon gondola when it broke loose from the steel cable and the balloon shot upward.
Police identified the woman as Rosemary Wooley Phillips, 60, of Oceanside, Calif. Paramedics tried to resuscitate her in a field near Interstate 25 and Montaño NE.
The balloon, still carrying pilot Tom Reyes, 57, of Sandia Park and three passengers, then drifted about a half-mile south and landed in a field near Comanche and Vassar NE.
Two of the passengers suffered broken bones.
The passengers were from California and were taking a paid ride that launched from Balloon Fiesta Park.
The accident occurred about 7:45 a.m. when the gondola became snagged on a three-eighth-inch "static wire" 65 feet high that protects electrical equipment from lightning strikes, said PNM spokesman Jeff Buell. The wire does not carry an electrical current, he said.
The wire gouged into the gondola, holding it fast. The pilot then tossed a safety tether to bystanders in an Arby's parking lot, witnesses said.
"They dropped us a strap, and we started pulling," said Michael Reid, an Arby's employee who helped try to free the balloon. Reid described the effort as a tug of war.
Bystanders tied the tether to a truck's trailer hitch as more than a dozen people helped pull the strap, Reid said. The force was so great that it bowed a 65-foot metal pole supporting the wire, he said.
Meanwhile, the pilot fired his propane tanks in an effort to keep the balloon upright as a 10-knot wind pushed the balloon southward, witnesses said.
"He had to keep giving it flame to keep the basket right-side up," Reid said.
After several minutes, the gondola broke free, the tether tore away and the balloon lurched upward, witnesses said.
"The balloon took a lunge upward as soon as it got free," said Patricia Puckett of Albuquerque. "The balloon popped up in the air."
State Police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Tingwall said a propane tank punched through the wall of the gondola and fell to the ground.
Witnesses were helpless as they watched Phillips fall.
"She was screaming. It was awful," Puckett said.
Paramedics arrived soon afterward and worked for 5 or 10 minutes to try to revive her, Tingwall told the Journal.
Passengers Sheryl Diaz, 60, Susan Simpson, 57, and Doris Currier, 52, all of Oceanside, Calif., were transported to University of New Mexico Hospital, State Police said.
Reyes received minor scrapes.
Diaz and Simpson were listed in satisfactory condition late Monday, said UNMH spokesman Sam Giammo. He declined to describe their injuries. Currier was treated and released.
Reyes' balloon, named Heavenly Ride, launched from Balloon Fiesta Park.
Reyes was a subcontractor with Rainbow Ryders, said Scott Appelman, the company's president. Rainbow Ryders is the only company authorized to give paid rides from Balloon Fiesta Park during the fiesta.
Reyes declined a reporter's request for an interview Monday. The surviving passengers also declined to be interviewed, Giammo said.
Appelman said Reyes, who also works for balloon company Skyspan Adventures, has been flying for at least 25 years and has about 1,900 hours of flight time.
Reyes is unlikely to be charged in the mishap, State Police Sgt. Kevin Bruno told a news conference Monday at Balloon Fiesta Park. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident.
The rest of the morning's flights were canceled around the time of the crash because wind speeds reached 10 knots, or 11.5 mph, said Paul Smith, executive director of the fiesta.
The FAA's agreement with the fiesta says balloons cannot fly if winds are faster than 10 knots, he said. Before winds reach that speed, it is each pilot's decision whether to fly.
Albuquerque Fire Chief Robert Ortega said balloonists who get tangled in power lines are advised to secure themselves in the gondola and wait for help from PNM and the Fire Department, unless there is immediate danger.
Jim Early, pilot of Too Darn Early, said that he was saddened by the accident but that it won't stop him from ballooning.
"It's tragic, but danger is one aspect of the sport," he said. "Every time you get on a 3-foot stepladder, you could hurt yourself. When you get off the ground, that risk is there."
There have been fatalities in previous balloon fiestas.
1982: The worst occurred when propane tanks aboard El Globo Grande exploded, killing four people and injuring five.
1990: Two men died when their balloon crashed into power lines and burst into flames.
1993: Two men died when their balloon hit power lines and their severed gondola plunged about 90 feet to the ground.
1998: One woman was killed when a balloon plowed into two sets of power lines and plummeted about 30 feet to the ground at Kirtland Air Force Base. That accident, however, involved a balloon that was not officially taking part in the fiesta.