Albuquerque woman dies in accident at Balloon Fiesta

.ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – One of hundreds of balloons in town for a festival tipped after snagging a utility line Monday, sending a woman plummeting at least 70 feet to her death.

Three other women in the gondola were hospitalized – two with broken legs – after the balloon broke free and crash-landed. The tragic ride cast a pall over one of New Mexico’s most popular and most colorful events.

“Our balloon community is a close-knit family and a time like this is difficult for all of us,” said Gary Bennett, president of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The annual nine-day event draws hundreds of balloonists from around the world and hundreds of thousands of spectators.

The balloon, named “Heavenly Ride,” snagged a utility line at 7:45 a.m. The pilot threw down a tether to a pickup truck on the ground in an apparent attempt to reel the balloon down and free it, a state police spokesman said.

But the tether broke and the balloon bounced back up, causing its gondola to tip. The woman fell more than 70 feet.

“It probably was a lot higher than that,” state police Sgt. Kevin Bruno said. “That’s just an estimate.”

Paramedics tried to revive the woman, Rosemary Wooley Phillips, 60, of Oceanside, Calif., in a dirt field where she fell. She was pronounced dead a short time later at University of New Mexico Hospital.

Bill Birkley of Albuquerque said he saw the balloon flying low and fast, then getting snagged in the utility line “like a fish hook.” He stopped his vehicle and was standing about 100 feet away when he saw Phillips fall.

“She was screaming and flailing her arms,” Birkley said. “It was the most helpless feeling in the world.”

The balloon, meanwhile, came free and drifted across a road near Interstate 25. It crash-landed, inflicting injuries on the other passengers and a pilot. Bruno said two women had broken legs and another had minor bumps and bruises.

The three – Sheryl Diaz, 60; Susan Simpson, 57; and Doris Currier, 52, all from Oceanside – were admitted to University Hospital, he said. The pilot sustained minor scratches and was treated at the scene.

The women booked the flight through Rainbow Ryders, a concessionaire contracted to provide flights from the fiesta’s launch field.

A company official, Scott Appleman, said pilot Tom Reyes has 30 years experience and more than 1,900 flying hours. Authorities say an investigation into the cause of the crash was continuing.