Michigan balloonist survives 9,000-foot fall in South Carolina

4:14 PM, Sep 2, 2008   |    comments
A man fell several thousand feet in Anderson this morning, suffering serious injuries, after his hot air balloon deflated, a fire department official said. (Courtesy: Paul Brown/Greenville News)
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Anderson, S.C. (GREENVILLE NEWS) - Dozens of witnesses watched in horror on Sunday as a hot-air balloon deflated high over Anderson and came crashing down into a tree in a residential neighborhood.

The pilot, Chuck Walz of Munith, Mich., survived the fall and was in guarded condition at Anderson Area Medical Center with non-life-threatening injuries, said Andy Baird, president of the Balloon Federation of America.

Walz was less than two hours into a navigational contest as part of the Great Southeast Balloon Fest when his balloon fell into a tree at 1703 S. McDuffie St. at 8:27 a.m., Baird said.

Anderson firefighters who saw the accident told the Associated Press the balloon may have been 9,000 feet when it ran into trouble. Baird said he didn't know how high it was or what went wrong.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and should have a preliminary report completed in about 10 days, said spokesman Peter Knudson.

Marvin TenBrink, a member of Walz's crew, said Walz had surgery on his leg and expected to spend the night in intensive care.

"He's his old self," TenBrink said. "He was joking with us and recognized everybody and was doing very well."

Capt. Mike Shirley said he and two other Anderson firefighters were watching balloons pass over their station house when they saw one drop from the sky.

"It was like a rock with a shoestring," he said.

Chief Jack Abraham said firefighters were on their way before the first 911 call came in.

Arriving in seconds, firefighters found a man on the ground and the balloon still in the tree, Abraham said.

Two civilians held up a propane tank to keep it from falling on the pilot, Abraham said. One man, who was wearing a firefighter T-shirt, was steadying the balloonist's neck, Abraham said.

Walz, the only person on board, had missed a house by about 20 feet and came about 10 feet from directly hitting the ground, Abraham said.

"He's alive because he landed in that tree," Abraham said.

Tree limbs penetrated the basket, and it tipped, Abraham said. Walz fell about 12 feet to the ground, Abraham said.

TenBrink said that when he arrived, Walz gave him a thumbs-up.

"I knew we had a good guy there that wasn't ready to be taken," TenBrink said.

Dispatchers received 29 emergency calls in four minutes starting at 8:27 a.m., said Taylor Jones, director of Anderson County Emergency Services.

The crash was the first since Anderson began hosting balloon festivals in 1999.

Freedom Weekend Aloft was in Anderson from 1999 through 2006. After losing the festival to Simpsonville, Anderson created the Great Balloon Fest in 2007.

None of the weekend's events, including balloon flights, will be affected by the crash, organizers said. Today is the festival's last day.

Donald Neighbor, 32, said he was trailing a different balloon as part of another pilot's crew when he saw the craft fall a little more than a block away. Neighbor said he's a firefighter and emergency medical technician for the Bakersville Fire Department in Ohio.

Wearing a T-shirt from his department, Neighbor said he rushed over and held Walz's head. Walz told the firefighter where he hurt, Neighbor said.

"I couldn't believe what was happening," Neighbor said. "But my ultimate goal in life is to help people out, so I went over to help out."

The balloonist had an open bone fracture, a large bruise on his belly and numerous cuts and scratches on his face, Abraham said.

Walz, an experienced pilot, and other competitors took off between 7 and 8 a.m. from various locations, Baird said. Walz launched from the Richard Campbell State Veterans Nursing Home just east of Anderson, TenBrink said. The contest tested navigational abilities by calling on pilots to fly over certain points, Baird said.

Balloon flights are monitored, said Maury Sullivan, the competition's safety officer. Pilots in the competition must have their aircraft and license credentials certified, he said.

Investigator Corky Smith will handle the NTSB investigation, which could last as long as a year, Knudson said.

By Paul Alongi, Greenville Daily News

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