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Chainsaws in hand, crews work to recover lost Army balloon

The military continued the days-long process of recovering the Army surveillance balloon that broke free of its moorings this week at Aberdeen Proving Ground, using chainsaws Friday to cut a path through the Pennsyvania woods where it crashed.

The 243-foot balloon came loose Wednesday, and NORAD sent a pair of F-16 fighter jets racing after it. It floated 160 miles in four hours, dragging 6,700 feet of cable and pulling down power lines, before falling to the ground in the sparsely populated woods near Moreland Township, Pa.

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The Army is now accepting claims from people whose property was damaged in the incident. Officials set up a website detailing the process and assigned a team of six people to process the claims.

A NORAD spokeswoman said investigators still do not know why the aircraft came loose from its moorings at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground. On Friday, they ruled out terrorism or a cyberattack Friday.

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Maj. Beth Smith, the spokeswoman, said the incident had been declared a "Class A Mishap," meaning it involved more than $2 million in damage or the loss of an aircraft.

Capt. Matt Villa, a planning officer at the crash site, said work was continuing to recover the main section of the balloon. On Thursday, crews deflated the tail section, which had landed about quarter of a mile from the body.

Once workers have made a clearing in the trees and detached the radar, Villa said, they plan to haul the balloon out and pack it on to helicopters Saturday. Parts of the system will be taken to a contractor facility in Elizabeth City, N.C., and the rest back to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The balloon and its twin were tethered to bases in Edgewood and Middle River as part of a 3-year exercise to test their ability to spot and defend against incoming cruise missiles and other threats to the National Capital Region. Tethered to the ground by cables, the balloons flew up to 10,000 feet in the air and were visible for miles around.

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Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose district includes Aberdeen Proving Ground, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, have demanded more information about how the balloon became untethered.

The second balloon was pulled down Wednesday and grounded indefinitely. The military has another pair of balloons stored in reserve, Smith said, but there were no plans to fly them.

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