A hot-air balloon pilot and two couples died after the balloon they were riding in struck a power line and crashed onto a busy street in Albuquerque on Saturday, the AP reports. New Mexico State Police on Sunday identified the pilot as 62-year-old Nicholas Meleski and the four passengers as Susan Montoya, 65; John Montoya, 61; Mary Martinez, 59; and Martin Martinez, 62. All were Albuquerque residents. State Police said John Montoya died at a hospital from his injuries while the other victims were declared dead at the crash scene Saturday. According to a National Transportation Safety Board database, there have been 12 fatal hot air ballooning accidents in the United States since 2008 with two of those occurring in Rio Rancho just outside Albuquerque, which is mecca for hot air ballooning. The city hosts a nine-day Balloon festival in October that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and pilots from around the world.
Witnesses told authorities that the balloon descended toward the ground around 7:30am Saturday and struck an overhead power line. The gondola detached from the envelope, fell about 100 feet, and crashed in the median of a busy city street before catching on fire, authorities said. The envelope of the balloon floated away, eventually landing on a residential rooftop. The NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration will be investigating the cause of the crash. “This is a tragedy that is uniquely felt and hits uniquely hard at home here in Albuquerque and in the ballooning community,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said. Meleski, a retired UPS driver, had been a licensed balloon pilot since 1994 and was a regular at the Balloon Fiesta.
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