A colorful, 12-story-tall hot-air balloon exploded in flames yesterday at a festive international ballooning event, killing four passengers and injuring five others.
The deaths were the first in the 11-year history of the Albuquerque International Hot-Air Balloon Fiesta but the event's shaken president, John Davis, vowed after the accident: "We are going to go on."
The fire began after the 140,000-cubic-foot striped balloon landed following a mass liftoff of hundreds of balloons. Of the nine persons aboard the balloon, only two escaped death or injury.
A man photographing the balloon at the time said it was on the ground for a few minutes when it suddenly rose quickly. "I noticed the gondola on fire. At about 40 feet, one person jumped or fell out," David Taylor said.
"It kept rising, and at roughly 400 feet, we saw one person hanging from the gondola. Then another person -- who was burning, it appeared -- fell. Then the person hanging fell. Then one tank [of propane fuel] exploded, and the other."
"The whole basket around the propane tanks was engulfed in fire," said J.W. Nimmo, a member of the balloon's chase crew. "We couldn't see who jumped out first."
Nimmo, who was following the balloon after it lifted off with 200 others balloons from Cutter Balloonport, said the craft had touched down near the Rio Grande in rural Albuquerque when the first explosion occurred.
Thomas Speer, 43, of Lakewood, Colo., who was on his first balloon ride, said he saw one of the other passengers jump from the gondola after the flaming balloon rose.
"I can look back and I can remember reading about people falling from those heights and surviving. It flashed through my mind that he could survive. Of course, he didn't."