Showing posts with label El Globo Grande. Show all posts
Showing posts with label El Globo Grande. Show all posts

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Day 15 In Boston - A Note Written By A Good Friend Who Came To Boston To Help And Witnessed The Intensity First Hand

Erin Solari and Allen M. Tonkin aka "III" September 1982 @ the "La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club".

Erin Solari: Just back from Boston and I know Donnie Brainard will send an update when he can but the recovery and healing process is moment to moment and day to day and sometimes there is just no way to describe that day. And on top of that, being at the hospital around the clock just wears one out so badly that there is no energy for anything else. It is not my place to forward another's info but I will say that by observation the staff at Boston Children's Hospital are some of the best I have seen and all are working together to help India in every way possible.

Also Donnie gets almost zero breaks because he is the only one sometimes who can assess what India is asking for and often the moment he tries to step out briefly to quickly eat or grab clothes from the hotel... He will be instantly called back to the hospital. In a perfect world Donnie would have more support there with him and I know my cousin Allen is there now trying to help but this is a long process and thus if there are other family or friends out there who are able to provide support there or even at home that would surely help. I also realized that while he is there for these months he is not working and that can surely generate its own stresses and challenges. Plus he is away from his wife and other 3 children which I imagine is hard as well. Again this is just my observation and thoughts from my short time there and looking at all the parts of life affected by this delicate situation and trying time for all his family. This after many challenging years before this - I pray for all involved and hope that the clouds of such strain and grimness may clear for all.

I also want to acknowledge all the family members & friends who HAVE already been supporting and helping for many years now. My golly - I admire all parents and all it takes to do it well and how much a parent gives of themselves and then with a disabled child or more than one I can't even fathom how the parents do it so my deepest respect to all the parents and families in this position and the super abundance of love, persistence and patience they all have to muster daily. — with Erin Solari at Boston Children's Hospital.

As a Post Script, Erin Solari is the girl who saved my life on October 3, 1982:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Trying To Move On In 2013

One of my goals for 2013 was to close out “old chapters” of my life and move on.  This process included my archiving old documents, photos and keepsakes as best I could. While doing this, I came across forgotten gems that brought back wonderful memories. I found items I’d rather never had been reminded of and a few I quickly burned from embarrassment and fear of somebody getting their grubby hands on them and having fun at my expense.

I came across a couple photos that I had no idea existed. They were of my oldest friend in the world and they brought back a flood of memories and some tears. Her name was Cyd Cutter, we met in 1972 as her mother and my grandmother were at some sort of exercise class; I’ll never forget that day. Cyd was my best friend until the day she died in 2008. We introduced ourselves as “brother and sister” and many people in our circle didn't know we weren't related. I loved Cyd with all my heart and the world was such a better place when she was alive.

I found out about my friends death in a jolting way.  I received a call from her young son. When I answered he said “mom’s dead”. I was not sure what I was being told and I asked him to repeat what he said. He repeated with “yeah, she’s dead, I found her on the bathroom floor”. I asked when did this happen expecting a response of yesterday or even last night but that wasn't the case. He said to me “I found her just now; she’s on the floor dead.

I was in shambles and to make matters worse.  My previous marriage was ending and as a result, my former wife had no room for kindness or empathy. It was a brutal moment in my life.

My best friends’ dad had the same name but it was spelled “Cid”. Cid Cutter was a great guy who was very successful. But he was most famous for his being the founder of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and arguably leaving one of the biggest legacies in the state of New Mexico. Mr. Cutter died in 2011 and his passing was a great loss.

So several days after finding the photos of my old friend, I jumped back into my project. In the very first box I opened, I came across a bunch of old legal documents. I quickly realized this paperwork was from a lawsuit stemming from the death of my father and pregnant step-mother in 1982.  I'd never read them before, didn't want to, it was too painful. But 30 years,10 months and 26 days after my dad and step-mom were killed, I did.

I was hit with something I had absolutely no idea about and wouldn't have guessed in a million years. I was seeing the name “Cid Cutter” and "World Balloons" everywhere.  It appeared that my best friend’s father was some sort of expert witness but I was wrong. It was Cid Cutter and his company World Balloons who owned and operated the balloon that my father and step-mother were killed in.

I couldn't possibly calculate the hours and days I spent with my best friend and her family and she with mine. Yet never once did anybody tell me, hers or mine, the connection.
The last time I saw Mr. Cutter, I had Thanksgiving with his family in 2009 at his house. During this holiday gathering, another guest brought up the El Globo Grande crash not knowing who I was. Mr. Cutter was standing there, looked at me and said "Tragic, just tragic". At the time I had no idea.

Oddly enough, once I had time to absorb what I’d just learned during my archiving project, I started wondering what the hell was that horrible experience like for Mr. Cutter and his family. What was it like for my best friend? Especially considering how close we were. Having my regular involvement with the family had to have been an uncomfortable reminder that made their recovery and ability to move on difficult.

But here is another intense twist.  The balloon my parents were killed in was supposed to have another passenger – me.  I cancelled at the last minute for a cute blonde I’d just me a few days before in California. She was in town and wanted to go to an early movie with me; a date! So I didn't go to the Balloon Fiesta and I’m alive today.  And the cute blonde was Mr. Cutter’s niece.

This story isn't done yet. After I learn about the Cutter/World Balloon involvement, I call an old friend who is into ballooning, knows the Cutters well and tell her this story.  When I'm done, she tells me "well I've got a story for you"!   She goes on to tell me that she'd just returned from a ballooning event in France.  One day while the balloons were down, she went to a local cafe. While having a cup of coffee she struck up a conversation with a guy at the next table.  The conversation turns to balloons, then Albuquerque, then the Balloon Fiesta.  Then this guy tells my friend about a horrible experience he had with a balloon and how it has haunted him ever since.

Apparently, this man had flown from Europe to New Mexico to go to the Balloon Fiesta. Somehow he ended up with 2 tickets to go up in a balloon. For some reason he gave his tickets away. Not long after that, there was an announcement that there had been a balloon crash.  Then a few minutes later, he learned the balloon that crashed was the very same balloon that he'd given away his tickets for. This man knew that the couple had used his tickets because he watched them go up in the balloon. Later that day, it was confirmed that they were among the dead, along with two other people; Nick and PJ Brainard - my parents.

After the accident, this guy fell into a long and deep depression.  As a way of “coping” with what had happened, he decided to study every element of the El Globo Grande wreck to see if there was something he could do to help prevent future hot air balloon tragedies. This man eventually went on to invent a fireproof fabric for hot air balloons that is apparently now used throughout the industry.

And with that, I’m going to pick up old friends  Cyd's  cat “Agony” (I didn't like that stupid name  Cyd named her so I renamed her to “Gonad”) who has been sitting on my lap purring while I wrote this and call it a day for October 2, 2013 – the 31’st eve of this sad event and go spend time with my children.

October 3, 1982.

Friday, September 20, 2013

El Globo Grande 30 Years Later

Donnie Brainard holds a photo of his father and stepmother, Nick and Pamela Jones Brainard, who died in a balloon accident in 1982, the worst disaster in Balloon Fiesta history. Photo Credit Marla Brose/Journal

A breaking news bulletin cut in as Donnie Brainard, then 14, watched Balloon Fiesta coverage while eating breakfast with his grandmother. On the TV screen, a hot air balloon burst into flames. He saw two people hold each other as they fell to their deaths.

“I sure do feel sorry for the families of those people,” Brainard recalls his grandmother saying.

Those words still haunt him.

A few hours later, he learned that the two people he saw falling were his father and stepmother, Nick and Pamela Brainard. Pamela was four months pregnant.

The accident, the worst in Balloon Fiesta history, happened 30 years ago this October. Four people died, and five were injured. “It was such a traumatic event and such a huge event,” Brainard said, now 44, adding that it seems as if people had forgotten about it.

Since then, there have been other accidents at the fiesta, but none so catastrophic, in part because of the large size of the balloon, aptly named El Globo Grande. The 12-story-tall balloon was authorized to carry eight people, according to Journal stories from 1982, although it held nine people that day.

According to National Transportation Safety Board data, it appears there have been 11 balloon-related deaths at the fiesta, with the last one occurring in 2008.

That’s a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of safe balloon rides over the last 40 years of the fiesta.

“It’s a very safe form of aviation,” said fiesta executive director Paul Smith, who stressed the fiesta’s main focus is safety and said “even one death is too many.”

A memorial to lost balloonists is scheduled to be dedicated at Balloon Fiesta Park on Oct. 2. Among those remembered will be the victims of El Globo Grande.
Clear, crisp morning

Sunday, Oct. 3, 1982, dawned crisp and clear. El Globo Grande one of the largest standard hot air

balloons made at the time was owned and piloted by Joe Gonzales of Albuquerque. Also on the ride that day were Dick Wirth, designer of the craft, and Christina Robinson, a balloon seamstress, both of London. They had come along to observe after Gonzales had complained of problems, according to
the FAA investigative report, cited in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. For many of the passengers, it was a last-minute flight.
Tom and Ann Speer, who lived in Lakewood, Colo., were introduced to the pilot that morning by Ann’s cousin.

C. Vincent Shortt, 35, from North Carolina, was at the fiesta promoting a motion picture he was producing called “Hot Heir.” He, too, arranged for a ride through an acquaintance. Barbara Mardyla, then 28, hitched a ride after meeting Shortt on the flight into Albuquerque.

The Brainards weren’t going to go to the fiesta grounds that day, Donnie Brainard recalled. Rather, they were planning to watch from the mountains. But Donnie remembers persuading them to go to the field, where they also nabbed spots on the flight.

The passengers clambered on, toting cameras with long telephoto lenses. Although mostly strangers, they chatted gaily through the hourlong flight. When, after 90 minutes, they appeared to touch down for a safe landing in a North Valley field, the ground crew broke out champagne to celebrate, according to a Journal story from 1982.

That’s when things began to go awry. Propane leaked out of a tank, hitting a burner and creating a fireball within the gondola while it was still on the ground.

It’s unclear in what order people began jumping or were thrown from the balloon. Shortt, Mardyla, Tom Speer and Gonzales all escaped while the balloon was low to the ground. Gonzales was on fire as he hit the ground. The heat and loss of weight caused the balloon to soar.

Ann Speer was still in the balloon as it ascended. Her husband recalls yelling: “Get out! Jump! Jump! Get out of there!” She finally flung herself from the gondola at about 30 feet in the air. He rushed under her to try to break her fall.

The others did not survive. Al Utton, the late University of New Mexico law professor who witnessed the event, said at the time that the remaining passengers were faced with “the cruel dilemma of being burned alive or jumping hopelessly.”

Christina Robinson and Wirth fell or jumped next. Nick and Pamela Brainard were the last to plummet to the ground.

Two propane tanks exploded after the balloon rose.

The probable cause report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that Gonzales had improperly made alterations to the balloon’s fittings and hoses attached to the propane cylinders. A subsequent report from the FAA was unable to determine whether a line or fitting in the fuel system had failed. Attempts to locate Gonzales for this story were unsuccessful.

Years to recover

Brainard said the crash put him into a tailspin that took years to recover from. He felt tremendous guilt for encouraging his dad and stepmom to go to the fiesta that day. He recently started writing about it on his blog as a way to confront his feelings.

“The level of guilt that I carried for the next 20 years was absolutely brutal,” he wrote. “No 14-year-old boy should ever have to shoulder this kind of responsibility. It warped my life in the most incomprehensible ways that you can think of. I feel incredibly fortunate to have survived.”

He said he’s been surprised by the popularity of the blog, where he also chronicles his daughter’s struggles with cerebral palsy and other aspects of his life. Brainard’s dad, Nick, was mostly absent from his childhood. But about a year before the accident, he and his wife, also called P.J., moved back to Albuquerque. Nick Brainard worked part-time at a law firm and part-time as a radio DJ.

In the blog, Brainard calls that year “the best 12 months of my life.” As an adult, Brainard has worked in the entertainment business and created the show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” He is currently working as an Albuquerque property broker at Maestas & Ward.

He said that, for many years, he didn’t talk about the balloon crash, but his wife encouraged him to write it down. His brother found the autopsy report and recently gave it to Brainard. He wrote that he was “rattled by the brutality inflicted on my dad’s young body.”

“It takes a lot of energy to relive it,” Brainard said. “It helped to get it out. It was very painful going through a lot of it again.”

Moving on

Three decades later, the survivors say they’ve moved on, but the memory of the accident will probably never leave them.

Shortt, then 35, suffered burns to his head and left hand. When he returned to North Carolina, he forged ahead with two ballooning-related projects: organizing a balloon festival in North Carolina and producing “Hot Heir,” a balloon comedy. He moved away from balloon-centric projects after those were complete, producing TV shows on country inns and historic hotels.

He didn’t go on another balloon ride for 13 years, when he decided to return to the Balloon Fiesta.

“I just felt I didn’t want the last experience I had in a hot air balloon to be a negative one,” Shortt said by telephone from Virginia, where he now lives.

Ann Speer, now 64, still has rods in her back where she broke it in three places and some chronic pain. Her husband, now 72, estimates that she was in the hospital for about a month in Albuquerque and off work for several more months after that. They both returned to active lives, even giving ski lessons, and now live in Arizona.

“We both picked up and continued to move forward,” he said. “I don’t think it’s had any lasting effect other than just bad memories.”

Barbara Mardyla now Gaiser returned to Ohio with singed hair and eyebrows only to find out that the local radio station had reported her dead.

“So when I did go back to work, everyone was saying ‘Oh my gosh, we thought you were dead.’” she said.

She withdrew for a while and saw a counselor.

“I didn’t talk to reporters,” she said. I just kind of wanted to go home and hide.”

Her mom is turning 80 this year and wants to go on a balloon ride. Gaiser is still deciding whether she’ll go along.

This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal