ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A mistake made by a hot air balloon pilot who had drugs including cocaine in his system caused a crash in 2021 in New Mexico that killed all five people on board, investigators have determined.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in its final report released this week that pilot Nicholas Meleski did not maintain enough clearance from power lines while trying to land. He hit the power lines and crashed into a busy intersection. The report said investigators found no evidence of mechanical malfunctions or failures.
The amounts of cocaine and marijuana found in his system suggested “recent use” that would have likely had “impairing effects” that contributed to the crash on June 26, 2021, the report said.
Meleski’s family told Albuquerque station KOB-TV in a statement that their hearts go out to the families of the passengers: Mary Martinez, her husband Martin, and their friends Susan and John Montoya.
“We cannot express the depth of our grief and sadness for the pain this accident has caused,” the statement said.
Witnesses also told investigators that the balloon’s envelope separated from the basket after hitting the power lines and floated away. It was found south of the crash site.
Martin Martinez worked as a police officer, first for the city of Albuquerque and later for its public school system. Mary Martinez, a mother of two, is remembered for her love of helping people. Susan Montoya was an assistant school principal and her husband worked with special education students.
Federal officials said the balloon crash was the deadliest in New Mexico’s history and the second deadliest in the U.S. since 2016. Albuquerque is home to an annual international balloon fiesta that draws hundreds of pilots and tens of thousands of spectators every October.