Suspended in fear above Baltimore

Squall: Tourists were stranded 200 feet in the air while winds whipped the balloon dangerously about.

July 18, 2004|By Alec MacGillis and Sara Neufeld | Alec MacGillis and Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

As thousands looked on nervously from below, the tethered tourist balloon at Port Discovery stalled during a wind squall over downtown Baltimore yesterday afternoon, leaving its 17 scared occupants stranded 200 feet above ground and buffeted by high gusts until they were finally lowered to safety after nearly two hours in the air.

Four sightseers were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries suffered when the balloon, in the ordeal's most terrifying moment, was whipped against the air conditioning shed on the top of the city police headquarters. The impact threw the passengers, who included five children, against the side of the steel gondola.

"I thought we were going to die when we hit that building. We didn't just glance it; it was a crushing blow," said Bryan Dorland, a Naval Observatory astronomer from College Park who was on the ride with his 10-year-old daughter. "I was in the Marine infantry, and that was the first time I felt I was going to die."

For many watching below, the scene was eerily reminiscent of another recent accident involving a Baltimore tourist attraction, the fatal capsizing of a Seaport Taxi on March 6 in the city's harbor, which took five lives. Here, again, tourists had set off for what was supposed to be a routine ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon, only to see rough weather blow in the potential for disaster.

The balloon, which is operated by Balloon Over Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit organization separate from the Port Discovery Children's Museum, went up for its 20-minute ride in a slight breeze shortly after 3:30 p.m. As it climbed to about 200 feet, high winds suddenly swirled in, swinging the colorful 4-ton, 110-foot-high balloon around on the wire cable that tethers it to a large yellow winch next to the museum.

The balloon swung so wildly that the computer controlling the 10-ton winch and balloon lost track of the balloon's location. This in turn caused the 55-horsepower engine on the winch to shut down, in what the balloon's chief operating officer, Mark Rosenberg, described later as an automatic safety response.

Because the engine cannot be restarted until the balloon is back on the ground, Rosenberg said, he began trying to bring the balloon down with a backup five-horsepower engine. That engine is supposed to be able to bring the balloon down in 45 minutes, as opposed to the four minutes that the descent normally takes. But there were complications, Rosenberg said. There was difficulty releasing the brakes that had automatically clamped on the winch.

There also was a debate between the balloon's operators and fire department officials who arrived on the scene over how best to bring the balloon down. Fire officials wanted to hitch their own cable to the balloon's cable and try to lower the balloon by having a rescue truck pull the cable along President Street. They even discussed releasing helium from the balloon, which Rosenberg said he opposed. Firefighters spent some time trying to hitch up the second cable before the winch's backup engine managed to gradually pull down the balloon.

As balloon officials struggled with the stalled winch, the balloon's conductor and his 16 passengers were trying their best to stay calm. Most hunched down in the gondola cage. Several tried to distract themselves by making small talk.

Rebecca Phelps of Herndon, Va., wrapped her legs around her 6-year-old daughter, Angela, as tightly as she could.

"It was the scariest thing I've ever been through," said Phelps, a U.S. Treasury Department employee who came to Baltimore for the day with her husband, Kevin, and their friend Peter Bartmann.

The balloon conductor, 20-year-old Chris Gorman, could provide only so much comfort. An engineering major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Gorman began his summer job with Balloon Over Baltimore last month. "I was freaking out," he said. "The kids were crying. We had people throwing up. It was wild."

Dorland, the astronomer, said that when the high winds started, passengers yelled at Gorman to send the balloon down. When passengers began to realize, despite the assurances being relayed from the ground over Gorman's radio, that the balloon operators weren't sure how to get them down, tensions grew. One passenger called 911 on his cell phone to make sure rescue officials knew what was going on.

The winds died down for a while, but still the balloon didn't go down. Then even stronger gusts came in, flipping the gondola at a 45-degree angle and driving the balloon against the police building. Everyone screamed and fell on top of one another, Dorland said, and he thought the balloon might rip.

His daughter suffered a cut and possibly dislocated an elbow in the crash, he said.

Meanwhile, his wife, Lorna, watched in horror on President Street with their 8-year-old son, who had not wanted to ride the balloon. She borrowed a cell phone to call her husband. When the balloon reached the ground, she rushed off to Mercy Hospital with her daughter.

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