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.
Many of the bystanders watching the balloon cheered when it reached the ground. They had watched in fascination, not sure whether they were witnessing a spectacle or tragedy in the making.
As chance would have it, the crowd included some of the more than 16,000 firefighters in town for a fire safety convention. They watched transfixed, speculating on rescue techniques.
Rosenberg, the balloon's operator, said the mishap was the first incident of its kind with the balloon in the three years and 7,398 trips it has taken. The balloon is not supposed to go up in high winds, he said, but there was no way of knowing when the balloon left the ground, with winds at 11 knots, that it would be hit by gusts of more than 40 knots.
The balloon's operators obtained a laptop computer after the fatal capsizing in March so they could track bad weather, he said, but the computer showed only the slightest blip of approaching winds. "It was an unusual circumstance to get hit that hard," Rosenberg said.
The history of the tethered helium balloon has been less than smooth. It took five years to gain the necessary approvals before the balloon, of the Hi-Flyer model, first rose in July 2001. A tunnel fire downtown postponed the balloon's opening day. It was grounded again after Sept. 11, and it collapsed under the weight of the record snowfall in February 2003. City police said it interfered with their helicopters.
The balloon operation, which charges between $8.50 and $12 for daytime rides, has struggled financially. Faced with high insurance premiums, the company that started the operation, Sky High of Maryland, was unable to pay its bills this year. The Abell Foundation, which had financed $1.5 million in development costs, stepped in to underwrite the operation through October.
Organization officials said it was too soon to say what yesterday's incident could mean for the future of the balloon, which they have grounded. Fire officials said the National Transportation Safety Board might investigate.
"I don't know what to say," said Alan M. Leberknight, Balloon Over Baltimore's board president, who rushed to the scene from his Baltimore County home.
Leberknight said the first thing he thought of when he heard about the stalled balloon was the capsized boat. So did city fire chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who learned about the accident as he was driving back into town after a vacation.
"The mayor and I were just having a conversation" about the eerie parallels to the boat capsizing, Goodwin said after the balloon was lowered. "Thankfully, this ended without a tragedy."
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was due to perform with his band at the Artscape festival, seconded the sentiment when he arrived at the scene.
"Thank God everybody is OK," he said.
110-foot-high Lindstrand HiFlyer helium balloon
Tethered on a high tensile wire cable to a 10-ton electric winch
Rises 450 feet
Maximum capacity of gondola, 30 people
Ride normally takes 20 minutes
Opened at Port Discovery in July 2001
Operated by Balloons Over Baltimore Inc.