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Hot-air balloon pilot was on coke and cannabis during fatal power line crash: investigators

The pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed in New Mexico was on cocaine and cannabis when he hit power lines, sending all five people aboard plummetting 100 feet to their deaths, according to investigators.

Nicholas Meleski’s “recent use” of coke and marijuana likely had “impairing effects” that contributed to the June 26, 2021, crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded in its final report into the deadliest balloon accident in New Mexico’s history.

The 62-year-old pilot did not maintain enough clearance from the power lines and struck them while trying to land in Albuquerque, according to the NTSB, which found no evidence of mechanical malfunctions or failures.

The basket detached from the balloon and plummeted 100 feet to the ground, killing Meleski, Susan Montoya, 65, her husband, John Montoya, 61, Martin Martinez, 59, and his wife, Mary, 62.

Hot-air balloon pilot Nicholas MeleskiCourtesy Meleski Family

John Montoya, the only passenger to initially survive the fall, later succumbed to his injuries at the University of New Mexico Hospital.

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Meleski’s family told Albuquerque station KOB-TV that their hearts go out to the families of the victims.

“We cannot express the depth of our grief and sadness for the pain this accident has caused — our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the passengers,” they said in a statement.

All five aboard the balloon were killed in the crash.

“We want to also thank the entire hot air ballooning community of New Mexico and across the world. The outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming and we continue to grieve with you. Nick loved this community so dearly, and our family will continue to support the sport any way we can,” the family said. “Whether you crew for a pilot or are a veteran in the skies … May the winds welcome you with softness. May the sun bless you with its warm hands. May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth,” they added.

Martin Martinez worked as a police officer, first for the city of Albuquerque and later for its public school system, before retiring.

The basket detached from the balloon and plummeted 100 feet to the ground.

Susan Montoya was an assistant school principal and her husband worked with special-education students.

Federal officials said the crash was the deadliest balloon accident in New Mexico’s history and the second-deadliest in the US since 2016.

Albuquerque is home to an annual international balloon fiesta that draws thousands of spectators every October.


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