Crew of tethered balloon lacked training, report says

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The operators of a tethered balloon should have seen a storm coming the afternoon of July 17, when 16 passengers and one crew member were stranded for 90 minutes in fierce winds high above downtown Baltimore, according to a state report released yesterday.

The crew lacked sufficient training in meteorology and emergency procedures, leading one worker to the mistaken belief that a brake had jammed and disabled the winch that could have hauled in the balloon, said the report from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

There was no evidence that the balloon equipment malfunctioned during the incident, which caused minor injuries to four passengers, the report said.

"This comes back to training and practice," said Robert L. Lawson, commissioner of labor and industry, a division within the department, which is responsible for compliance with the state amusement-ride safety law.

"I don't like to say the words 'human error' because if they were not appropriately trained how can they make an error?"

The balloon is at Port Discovery children's museum but was operated by Balloon Over Baltimore Inc., a separate nonprofit organization. It has been grounded since the incident, but Lawson said it could fly again if the operators meet new requirements called for in the report.

"We feel that we've given the owner/operator some realistic objectives to put the balloon back in operation," he said. "We see nothing that would prevent them from putting it back in operation."

Alan M. Leberknight, president of the Balloon Over Baltimore board and former president of the museum, said he had not yet read the 31-page report. He said he would need to talk to the crew before coming to any conclusions about the findings.

"Right now, I have no reason to take exception to anything and no reason to say it's right," he said of the report, adding: "We did not have anything but the safety of passengers and crew as our goal here."

The board will meet within a couple of weeks to discuss the findings and the future of the balloon, which has long been mired in financial troubles, Leberknight said.

About 3:30 p.m. July 17, the colorful 4-ton, 110-foot-tall balloon began its ascent on what had been, until that point, a hot, breezy day.

"As soon as we got above the buildings, we saw a big, dark storm near the Key Bridge," the report quotes an unidentified passenger as saying.

A few minutes into what should have been a 20-minute ride, the balloon was buffeted by strong winds that Lawson described as "extremely unusual" - but that were not unforeseen by weather forecasters.

At 3:45 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a warning that thunderstorms were entering southern portions of Baltimore, with heavy rain, lightning and wind gusts to 25 mph, the report states.

Three minutes later, weather service radar images showed winds of 50 to 65 mph over Locust Point and headed for the spot where the balloon flew at 200 feet.

One wind gust forced the balloon downward, and it came within 70 feet or 80 feet of crashing into President Street. Another whipped it into the air-conditioning shed on top of city police headquarters, throwing passengers - including six children - against the side of the steel gondola.

The report calls for better meteorological and emergency training of balloon staff - a requirement for recertification by the state.

"We recommend they do a hands-on practice, multiple times a year, on a set schedule," Lawson said."In the event there is a malfunction, it would be a routine-type exercise that they're familiar with."

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