The four balloonists threw everything overboard they could find. Chairs, tables, food were dumped. One hundred soft-drink cans placed aboard by the company that put up most of the $250,000 for the flight of the DaVinci TransAmerica were jettisoned as well.
It was about midnight Monday, and the craft, attempting to make the first nonstop balloon crossing of the United States, had been overtaken by a thunderstorm.
Snow and torrential rains poured down the neck of the 10-story-tall, tear-shaped balloon and into the gondola where the four crew members were frantically arguing about how to save their lives.
Although the crew released ballast and threw overboard almost everything there was to throw, the craft plummeted from between 12,000 and 14,000 feet to 6,000 feet because the collected snow and rain added too much weight.
The balloon was over farmland not far from this northwest Ohio village and minutes away from a violent forced landing.
Yet at 11 p.m., about an hour before, the crew of the DaVinci TransAmerica thought they had it made.
Pilot Vera Simons had outrun huge, deadly thunderstorms in a 40-mile-an-hour race across three midwestern states.
The adventurer and artist from McLean, Va., who was to shatter her left leg as the only causualty of the landing in a soybean field, went to the lower level of the cube-shaped gondola to get some sleep.
Dr. Fred Hyde, an eye surgeon from Kansas, took over the balloon's controls and saw thunderstorms far behind to the west. The sky above was clear and calm and he could see the stars. "Everything was really good," he recalls. In less than six hours the crew would break the world record for the most hours aloft in a windborne balloon.
The storm that overtook the DaVinci was tiny compared to the one that the balloon had outrun in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. But it was enough to end the flight short of that record.
The meterologists in Bedford, Mass., who had been advising the balloonists on weather patterns since the flight began last Wednesday on the Oregon coast, ordered the DaVinci to try to climb above the storm.
But the weight of the snow and water that accumulated in the gondola was too much.
As the balloon descended, the crew argued heatedly over what to do, according to crew member Hyde, who was interviewed before dawn today at St. Rita's Medical Center in nearby Lima, Ohio.
Hyde, whose eyes were bloodshot and swollen from fatigue and who had quietly gone off to a hospital room to relax, said the buffeting of the storm's downdrafts frightened and confused the crew.
"When we came down, we were trying to decide whether to land, try to fly or jump out of the gondola with our parachutes," Hyde said.
Rudolf J. Englemann, a crew member and environmental scientists from Boulder, Colo., urged the others to try to continue the flight, Hyde said. Englemann said today he had mixed emotions about the final decision against remaining aloft.
Randy Birch, an NBC cameraman whose network paid $7,500 to place him aboard as the fourth crew member, said he wanted to parachute, according to Hyde, and attempted to teach Simons, an inexperienced parachutist, how to jump from the gondola.
Hyde said he equivocated: "I didn't know what I wanted to do."
Shortly before midnight, the balloon popped out of the clouds and floated over several open fields.
"We had some nice places picked out below with our flashlights,' Hyde said. The flat countryside was pitch black and the rain was falling hard. The wind, however, had diminished to nearly nothing.
"We finally voted to let the gas out of the balloon," Hyde said. Helium, a gas seven times lighter than air, was vented and the balloon went down.
The landing was rough, according to Hyde, because the crew could not tell where the ground was. "We were surprised when we did hit and we really crunched," he said. "Poor Vera (Simons) broke her leg on the first bounce. On the second bounce, she hollered a little bit more."
The gondola wound up on its side. Hyde and Englemann said they dispatched Birch to get help as they put a splint on Simon's leg and Hyde gave her an injection of the pain killer Demerol.
Birch, wearing his parachute and flight helmet, walked about a half mile to the farm house of Joy Dawson. Dawson said today the cameraman knocked on her door at 1:15 a.m., said he was a balloonist and that he needed help. She called the Spencerville rescue squad.
Simon said before she went into surgery for a compound fracture today she was "very disappointed with the flight's termination."
The DaVinci set two records: On Friday, having traveled 1,084 miles when it drifted over Denver, it set a record for the longest wind-borne balloon flight in the United States. Late yesterday it set the record for the longest overland wind-borne balloon flight in history. It traveled 2,003 miles, breaking a 65-year-old record of 1,896.9 miles set by a hydrogen balloon flying between Europe and Russia.
The DaVinci's flight lasted more than 132 hours, narrowly missing the endurance mark of 137 hours six minutes set last summer by three balloonists who made the first successful transatlantic balloon crossing.
Will the DaVinci's crew make another attempt at a transcontinental balloon crossing? Englemann and Birch were for it, Hyde unsure. Simons, under sedation in the hospital following surgery, could not be reached for comment.
By mid-morning today, crowds of farmers from nearby towns drove to Joy Dawson's soybean field to look at the deflated plastic balloon, which lay collecting puddles in a light rain. The gondola's interior was a jumble of radio wires, soggy maps and broken saltine crackers. Cashew nuts were strewn inside and a spider crawled across a battery pack that powered a television camera.