Uncertainty clouds fate of grounded balloon

Fear and concerns linger a year after ride accident

July 17, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN STAFF

A year after a tethered tourist balloon stalled 200 feet over Baltimore's downtown, trapping 17 frightened passengers for two hours, the popular attraction remains grounded with no assurance that the gondola will rise above the city again.

Yet the idle helium balloon that is still tied to a yellow winch next to the Port Discovery children's museum serves as a reminder of unresolved issues and painful memories.

The board president of the nonprofit corporation that runs Balloon Over Baltimore Inc. would say only that the company is still "addressing issues" of the accident.

State officials who want more than a dozen safety concerns addressed before giving an operating permit say they have not heard back from the balloon's operators.

Rebecca Phelps, who was trapped along with her husband and young daughter, still remembers the terrifying day last July 17 that started out as fun and ended with the gondola swinging uncontrollably in a gusty wind as thousands of bystanders watched from the street. She said her family is still afraid to fly in an airplane.

Mayor Martin O'Malley also said the nonprofit is probably trying to determine whether re-launching the balloon "makes good business sense" as the company sorts through insurance and liability costs.

The mayor, who often passes the colorful 4-ton, 110-foot tall balloon, noted that the land the balloon sits on is "also an attractive sight for redevelopment -- more attractive now than when a balloon went there years back."

People still come to gaze at the balloon, and they are left with no explanation why it hasn't gone up again. A purple sign, bleached by the sun and hanging from a padlocked green fence near President Street, still lures would-be riders: "Soar 450 feet in the air and experience Baltimore from a whole new view!"

But Alan M. Leberknight, the board president of Balloon Over Baltimore, said there are no specific answers as to when or whether the ride would ever be restarted.

"We want to make sure that we make things right than to get it cranking again," he said, adding that the nonprofit does have insurance for the ride.

"We're trying to get it done right," he said.

The accident occurred on what had been a hot and breezy Saturday afternoon. It was to be a routine 20-minute flight.

But as the balloon climbed to 200 feet, high winds suddenly swung the craft around on the wire cable that is hooked to the ground.

The gondola banged into a rooftop air-conditioning shed on the Police Headquarters building, throwing the passengers into the sides and injuring four.

A report issued by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation says passengers described seeing dark storm clouds over the Key Bridge and added that wind speeds began to suddenly pick up as the balloon climbed.

Wind speeds increased from "15 knots, to 20 then 22, to 26 and then to 35 knots in a matter of seconds," according to the report.

The winds created additional tension on the steel tether, forcing a safety device to activate, shutting down the winch system. The balloon's operator unsuccessfully tried to release the safety device that prevented its descent.

One gust forced the balloon within about 80 feet of crashing on President Street.

The state report concluded the crew operating the balloon lacked sufficient training in meteorology and emergency procedures, which led its operator to mistakenly believe the winch was unable to pull the balloon down.

A list of concerns

State officials revoked the owner's operating license and drew up a report with more than a dozen concerns that needed to be addressed before they could approve future flights.

Linda Sherman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said last week that the company has not contacted the office to reapply for the license.

The accident has apparently not hurt attendance for the financially struggling Port Discovery museum, which averages about 250,000 visitors a year, according to spokeswoman Michelle Winner.

The balloon operations have a history of financial problems as well. Its former owner, who started operations in 2001, was faced with high insurance premiums.

The Abell Foundation stepped in to underwrite the operation through October 2004.

The balloon's grounding apparently has not made a strong impact on the tourism of Baltimore, according to downtown development officials.

"We hate to lose any attraction, but ... the area around the balloon has seen a new popularity due to Port Discovery and Power Plant Live and an influx of new residents in that area," said Mike Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership.

But for the people who were trapped in the gondola, it was an experience they say they will never forget.

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