Albuquerque police and firefighters respond to a balloon crash Saturday morning on the West Side that killed the pilot and four other people.
Adolphe Pierre-Louis | Albuquerque Journal

John Martinez spent Saturday morning watching hot air balloons float over his backyard on Albuquerque’s West Side and even took a moment to wave. A short time later, when the power went out in his home, he had a feeling something was wrong.

Martinez walked outside to a loud “fluttering” sound and looked up to see a balloon “coming down fast.”

“I witnessed it for a good seven seconds just free fall. It was… Man, my heart just, those people,” he said. “My thought was, ‘I hope they’re not inside that thing.’”

Martinez told his wife to call 911 and jumped in his truck, soon finding himself at a crash site where first responders tried to resuscitate five people near an overturned basket.

“They were giving CPR, doing what they can, but it was obvious they were deceased, they were gone,” he said of the bodies surrounding the gondola.

The incident appears to be the deadliest recorded balloon crash in the city’s history.

Authorities say a pilot and four passengers died after their hot air balloon struck power lines and crashed at a busy West Central intersection Saturday morning.

A former Albuquerque police officer, Martin Martinez, 62, and his wife, Mary Martinez, 59, were pronounced dead at the scene, along with the pilot and another female passenger. A male passenger rushed to a hospital with severe injuries also died. Authorities had not identified two of the passengers or the pilot, but other balloonists said the pilot was Nick Meleski.

“I’m incredibly saddened to hear of this terrible tragedy in Albuquerque,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in statement posted on Twitter. “My prayers are with the loved ones of those affected.

Gilbert Gallegos, an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman, said the deceased ranged from their 40s to their 60s and they were all from Albuquerque.

At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Mayor Tim Keller called the incident an “incredible tragedy.”

“These were New Mexicans, these were Burqueños, and their families are experiencing deep suffering,” he said.

APD said multiple officers had to be sent home due to what they witnessed.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue spokesman Tom Ruiz said AFR responded around 7 a.m. to the crash at Central and Unser. He said crews found that a balloon gondola had struck power lines and fallen 100 feet to the median on Unser — at some point catching on fire.

“The balloon envelope was found at a separate location south of the incident,” Ruiz said. “The cause of the initial crash is unknown at this time.”

Ruiz said the crash is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA did not immediately have registration details for the balloon but identified it as a Cameron 0-120. The National Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to the scene who will look into the pilot, the balloon itself and the operating environment, said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson.

The immediate aftermath of the crash could be seen in one chaotic video posted to social media.

The man filming runs across a CVS Pharmacy parking lot as loud explosions are heard and the balloon envelope is seen floating in the sky with no gondola attached.

“The balloon just hit the electrical pole and they blew up,” the man said, trying to catch his breath.

Yelling and panic ensues as a crowd gathers at the street corner and the basket can be seen, upturned and partially on fire, with what appears to be bodies hanging out. People yell for someone to get a fire extinguisher and, within seconds, someone runs up with one and sprays down the basket as traffic drives past.

A second video shows first responders trying to resuscitate the victims beside the balloon gondola as the man filming says, “Please God let them wake up.”

Hours later, dozens of nearby neighbors, passersby and others gathered outside the web of crime scene tape as news helicopters circled above. Many people surveyed the scene, swapped stories of what they saw, took photos and videos or just sat stunned on the curb.

Several balloonists and chase crew members crowded around an SUV, holding each other, crying and speaking with a police chaplain. Police and firefighter vehicles clustered around the median of Unser as PNM crews fixed the severed power line high above the roadway.

In the center of it all, a broken balloon basket rested on its side surrounded by a handful of bodies beneath white sheets.

Tight knit community

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said when he learned the victims’ names, he recognized one of them — that of Martin Martinez. Medina said he worked with Martinez, who was a bike officer at the time when Medina came to APD decades ago.

“No matter how big we think we are, we’re still a tight knit community and incidents like this affect us all,” Medina said as an officer behind him visibly wept. “There were officers on the scene who I know worked with (Martinez) through the course of their career.”

He added, “We did have to send a number of officers home because they were a little bit disturbed. It took its toll on them.”

Martin Martinez retired from APD as a patrol officer and had been a police sergeant for Albuquerque Public Schools the past 16 years. He and his wife have a son who is currently an APD transport officer.

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder said Sgt. Martinez would “forever be remembered for his lifelong dedication, courage, and selflessness to the profession of law enforcement.”

In a statement, Elder said members of the APS Police Department “loved, admired, and respected Sgt. Martinez.”

Medina said the scene is something that will stick with first responders.

“That tragedy we get exposed to and a lot of times our officers carry it, fire officials carry it for the rest of their lives,” he said. “And this is one of those moments that I’m sure, far beyond today, that I’ll think about.”

Remembering a ‘wonderful’ pilot

Visibly emotional balloon chase crew members at the scene said they knew the pilot.

“This is just such a tragic loss,” fellow balloon pilot Buzz Biernacki said, his face streaked with tears.

On social media more than a dozen people, including fellow balloonists and friends — both near and far — identified the pilot as Nick Meleski, with Izia Balloon, and mourned the loss.
Benedict Savio, who lives in India, said he met Meleski in 2007 when Savio started holding balloon events across Asia and in Dubai. The two went on to fly together dozens of times in Albuquerque and far away places such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, among others.

Over time, he said Meleski and his wife, Mona, grew to be family and he recalled fondly the couple’s love of elephants and watching the animal herds together in India and Thailand.
“It is really very shocking that we are getting this news,” he said. “It’s tragic to hear and — to be very frank — he’s the very safest pilot and even if it’s a little wind he would think twice to fly.

“I cannot believe this has happened.”

Savio said you could not find a better human being than Meleski, who was very friendly and often played with Savio’s children but, in the skies, he was very “clear in his work” and would adapt himself to any balloon event.

“I used to use him for all my events,” Savio said. “Now, it’s like my right hand is broken. For all my international events he was part of it, for the past 10, 12 years. It is a big loss for me.”

Chris Jones, a balloon pilot based in Texas, said Meleski had a “wonderful skill set” and had flown thousands of hours. He said he knew Meleski for 12 years and flew with him at countless balloon events and he assisted Jones in his training to fly special shape balloons.

“As far as skill level and sharing ideas and thoughts… he was absolutely wonderful,” Jones said. He later added, “I don’t know what happened this morning… some things are just unavoidable, the sport does have its risks… I think he probably did the best he could in the situation he was brought up against.”

Jones said he received a call Saturday morning that a balloon had crashed and the details pointed to Meleski. The realization left him “extremely sad” and in “disbelief.”

“Our tight community, we know the balloon, we saw the shape, we saw the design, that was a very unique design,” Jones said. “We know who that was. In the back of our minds we always hope he’s not in it… but we know better than that.”

He said Meleski was “quite the character” who was always clad in a bandana, shorts and hiking boots — a look that “carried out in his personality.”

“You knew Nick was coming a mile away. You could see him, you could hear him,” Jones said. “He was awesome, he made you smile, he made you want to smile. Just because he was loving it, loving what he was doing.”

Jones said he saw Meleski at a balloon event in Angel Fire last weekend. The two caught up during a chance encounter at a convenience store in town.

“He had to tell me all about his flight that morning and how great it was… How beautiful everything was for him at that time,” Jones said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mattew Reisen, Journal Staff Writer