October 3, 2010 in Nation/World

Pilots’ fate hangs over balloon fiesta

Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Balloons inflate Saturday during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
(Full-size photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Hundreds of balloonists in New Mexico lifted off Saturday at dawn amid a somber mood, opening the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta while search crews on the other side of the globe scoured the seas for two of the sport’s most acclaimed pilots.

Richard Abruzzo, of Albuquerque, and Carol Rymer Davis, of Denver, were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Wednesday morning over the Adriatic Sea. Scuba divers joined in the search Saturday, but race organizers said the two plunged toward the water at 50 mph and likely didn’t survive.

Kevin Knapp, a pilot and deputy director of the America’s Challenge gas balloon race scheduled to begin Tuesday in Albuquerque, acknowledged the mood is more serious this year, but he said friends and colleagues of the pair are holding on to hope.

“To survive a descent like that is challenging. I know people who have, I know people who haven’t,” said Knapp, who described the pair as mentors to many in the ballooning community.

The Italian Coast Guard said a group of eight divers equipped with underwater cameras searched in the Adriatic on Saturday. But spokesman Lt. Massimo Maccheroni said “hopes of finding them alive after four days at sea are close to zero.”

Abruzzo’s wife, Nancy Abruzzo, said in a statement that no “physical evidence from the balloon, the gondola, equipment or personal effects” had been found.

Concern about the two could be heard throughout the crowd on Saturday in between sips of hot chocolate and coffee and the cheers that erupted each time one of the colorful balloons lifted off. The newspaper headlines in stands around balloon fiesta park summed it up: “Conflicting Emotions.”

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