Five killed in New Mexico as hot air balloon crashes into power lines

New Mexico has long been a popular destination for balloonists

A hot air balloon crashed in a neighbourhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Saturday, killing five people after apparently being blown into power lines by the wind and catching fire, police said.

The pilot and three passengers were pronounced dead at the scene, police said. The fourth passenger was taken to an Albuquerque hospital where he died of his injuries.

The basket crashed into a street corner in the city's West Side neighbourhood, about 10 kilometres west of Albuquerque International Sunport Airport, according to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The balloon separated from the basket after it crashed, and landed elsewhere, police said.

The ages of the victims are between 40 and 60, police said, but no names were released. No one on the ground was injured.

Witnesses told police the balloon hit a power line shortly after 7am local time.

"We know from experience here in Albuquerque that sometimes winds kick up or things happen that make it difficult for balloons to navigate," Albuquerque Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told reporters.

The intersection where the balloon crashed was still cordoned off late Saturday afternoon. The multicoloured balloon had skirted the top of the power lines, sending at least one dangling and knocking out power to more than 13,000 homes, said police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos.

The gondola fell about 30 metres and crashed in the street's median, catching fire, the FAA said. Bystanders frantically called out for a fire extinguisher to put out the flames and prayed aloud, video posted online showed.

The envelope of the balloon floated away, eventually landing on a residential rooftop, Mr Gallegos said. The FAA did not immediately have registration details for the balloon but identified it as a Cameron 0-120.

Authorities haven’t determined what caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to the scene on Saturday who will look into the pilot, the balloon itself and the operating environment, said spokesman Peter Knudson. A preliminary report typically is available in a couple of weeks.

Mr Gallegos said hot air balloons can be difficult to manage, particularly when the wind kicks up.

“Our balloonists tend to be very much experts at navigating, but sometimes we have these types of tragic accidents,” he said.

Albuquerque residents are treated to colourful displays of balloons floating over homes and along the Rio Grande throughout the year. While accidents are not common, they happen.

“This is a tragedy that is uniquely felt and hits uniquely hard at home here in Albuquerque and in the ballooning community,” said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

Since 2008, there have been 12 fatal hot air ballooning accidents in the United States, according to an NTSB database. Two of those happened in Rio Rancho just outside Albuquerque, including one in January where a passenger who was ejected from the gondola after a hard landing died from his injuries.

In 2016, in neighbouring Texas, a hot air balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture in the central part of the state. All 16 people on board died. Federal authorities said at the time it was the worst such disaster in US history.