Balloonexplosion near border kills two, injures 11

Published on Thu, Aug 30, 2007 by ack Kintner

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Balloon explosion near border kills two, injures 11

By Jack Kintner

A 50th birthday present turned into tragedy for a Langley, B.C., woman and her daughter in full view of a Blaine neighborhood last Friday evening when a large 15-passenger hot air balloon exploded while attempting to take-off from a field less than a third of a mile north of the international border.

The accident was witnessed by several people living along the border in Blaine’s West 99th Street/Canada View neighborhood, including an entire youth soccer team eating dinner at Smuggler’s Inn.

The row of houses on the north side of the street backs up to the border and has a sweeping view of the rural and placid Little Campbell River valley, a setting so sheltered and pristine that it’s often used as a set for movies and TV shows such as Smallville.

Dave Hax, who lives at 2702 W. 99th, said that he and his wife Jeanette had just settled down on their deck for a cup of coffee. “We like to watch the RE/Max balloons float around in the evening,” he said, “it’s really pretty.”

But about 7 p.m. Hax heard a rumble followed by a loud “whoosh” sound and a hissing noise, and then he watched as the unusually large balloon rose up from behind a row of trees, its normally spherical balloon dented “like someone punched it,” its large wicker gondola burning brightly.

“It reached its high point and hung there for a while, and then the bag collapsed and it plummeted to the ground. We saw one person fall while it was on the way down,” Hax said, “the whole incident taking maybe a minute to a minute and a half.”

Jeanette Hax, meanwhile, ran to get her camera and managed to take several photos, some of which found their way into print and electronic media outlets across North America. “We heard the propane tanks explode when it hit the ground,” her husband said, “and then there was an eerie silence for a few minutes until aid cars and fire engines began showing up.”

At Smuggler’s Inn, two blocks west of Hax’s house, owner Bob Boule was serving dinner to a team of 17-year-old soccer players from Spokane and their parents and coaches, “about 50 people,” Boule said, “when [the balloon] rose up from behind the trees and then fell. We didn’t hear anything. It was very quiet, and I’m pretty sure it kind of got to the kids.”

Boule called the Border Patrol, the agency that does 911 dispatch for Blaine after normal working hours, and was switched into the Canadian system where he was able to provide directions to the crash site. “Aside from giving them needed information, making some kind of response seemed to help calm the kids,” Boule said.

Reports from the scene said that as the pilot, Steve Pennock, was getting underway when witnesses said they heard a loud explosion followed by fire erupting inside the gondola. Eleven of the 13 passengers and Pennock managed to evacuate the gondola and survive, although some passengers had to jump from as high as 50 feet and suffered broken bones.

Three mobile homes were destroyed on the ground in a trailer park near the corner of Eight Avenue and 192nd Street although no one on the ground was injured.

But Shannon Knackstedt and her 20-year-old daughter Jemma were not so lucky. Instead of jumping out they stayed with the gondola and later died. Her husband August and daughter Justine managed to escape and are recuperating in a South Surrey hospital.

Pennock has operated Fantasy Balloon Charters out of Langley for 16 years and holds a balloon instructor’s rating as well as a commercial license.

He has more than two decades of accident-free operation, although he was convicted and fined 22 years ago for reckless flying north of Victoria. The case was overturned on appeal, however.

Three years ago Jeanette Hax rode in a similar large balloon that operates off the surface of Lake Tahoe. “It’s big, holding a dozen or more passengers in walled-off areas in each corner,” she said, “and it operates off a large decked-over catamaran.”

The balloon that blew up was reported to be the biggest hot air balloon in western Canada with a rip-stop nylon envelope, more than 300,000 cubic feet in size. By comparison the Goodyear Blimp is just over 200,000 cubic feet but is held aloft by helium, not hot air, and unlike hot air balloons can be steered like a conventional aircraft. Hot air balloons can regulate their altitude precisely but drift with the wind.

The accident is under investigation by Transport Canada’s safety board.