Victims of New Mexico hot air balloon crash include school principal gifted trip for ‘bucket list’


A school principal named as one of five people killed in a hot air balloon crash was gifted the trip by her colleagues as a bucket list experience.

Susan Montoya, 65, was given the trip as a farewell present from her colleagues at Georgia O’Keefe Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she had worked since 2015. 

Montoya – who died alongside her husband John, 61, on Saturday – was moving onto a new job at the end of the academic year, with Superintendent Scott Elder telling KOB4 that Montoya’s colleagues were shell-shocked by her sudden death. 

‘The staff at Georgia O’Keefe chipped in funds to purchase a balloon ride for Susan and three guests as a farewell gift,’ Elder said. ‘It was their way of showing Susan how much they love and appreciated her. There are no words to describe the heartache and trauma the staff at Georgia O’Keefe is dealing with today. Please keep them in your prayers.’

The Montoyas and the other three people who died when the balloon struck power lines and its basket detached have since been named and pictured.

Susan Montoya, right, and her husband John, left, were killed in Saturday’s Albuquerque hot air balloon crash while enjoying a ‘bucket list experience’ gifted to Susan by colleagues at the school she’d just quit 

Hot air balloon pilot Nicholas Meleski, 62, has also been pictured in the wake of his tragic death

Hot air balloon pilot Nicholas Meleski, 62, has also been pictured in the wake of his tragic death 

They are pilot Nicholas Meleski, 62, as well as another husband and wife couple, Martin Martinez, 62, and his wife Mary.     

All five victims had ties to Albuquerque Public schools, according to a news release published by the district on Sunday.   

Meleski was the father of a school crisis counselor. And Mary and Martin Martinez were very close-knit with the school district.  

Susan’s husband, John, started his career with APS as a substitute teacher in 2014 and, the following year, became an educational assistant for the special education program at Sandia High School. 

‘Susan was a gifted administrator. John worked with our most vulnerable students. Both school communities are devastated,’ said Associated Superintendent Troy Hughes in the school’s news release.  ‘Susan was known for having a joyful spirit and a kind heart. John had a servant’s heart. He loved working with students and was always so kind. He was the kind of person that made you remember that there was kindness in this world.’ 

Hughes added that the couple was involved in their church and enjoyed Zumba.

Jim Marable, a friend of the Montoya’s, wrote in a Facebook post that they were ‘True servants and sweetest people’ who leave behind many children and grandchildren and ‘grieving churches in Albuquerque and Gallup.’ 

The district has set up a crisis team to meet with staff and students this week, said Kristine Meurer, executive director of the school system’s Student, Family, and Community Supports Division, in the school’s new release. 

Meanwhile, many other balloon pilots and fanatics were shaken by the loss of one of Nick Meleski. ‘Every time he opened his mouth – it would be something to be learned or experienced through his excitable story – his love for the sport and his love for life,’ said Chris Jones, another balloon pilot, in an interview with KOB4. ‘You were happy to be experiencing vicariously or in reality with him and I’m sad I will never get that opportunity today.’ 

‘He was a great pilot, I’ve known him a long time – he’d do anything for ya,’ another pilot, Bill Noe, told KOB4. ‘If you were down in the dumps, he’d try to cheer you up, ‘come on, let’s go!’ If you were hesitant about putting your happy face on, he’d do what he could to help you change. We’re pretty saddened by this morning’s event… it’s always… it’s a big loss when you lose not only a pilot, but passengers as well. It’s tough to take,’ Noe said. ‘We’re trying to be supportive. We’re trying to understand.’

Kalyn Chieruzzi wrote in a Facebook post, ‘The ballooning family lost an incredible friend today. Nick Meleski, you were the life of the party. Wherever you were, you knew how to light up the room. You put many smiles on people’s faces. If someone was having a bad day, you lifted their spirits. I loved being around you. Everyone loved you. It’s an honor to call you my friend! We all will miss you so much. We love you. We love you too Mona! Keeping you both in our hearts and prayers. Lost for words, except for…life is too short. Don’t take it for granted – love one another, especially your loved ones. Fly high my friend!’   

Martin Martinez, 59, a retired Albuquerque police officer and sergeant in the Albuquerque Public Schools Police Department, and his wife Mary, 62, died in the crash Saturday

Martin Martinez, 59, a retired Albuquerque police officer and sergeant in the Albuquerque Public Schools Police Department, and his wife Mary, 62, died in the crash Saturday 

Martin Martinez, 59, a retired Albuquerque police officer and sergeant in the Albuquerque Public Schools Police Department, and his wife Mary, 62, were first identified during a Saturday afternoon press conference. Their son is a current prison transport officer in the department. 

Family friends paid tribute to the couple on social media, with one writing ‘Dios Los Bendiga’ – meaning ‘God bless you’ in Spanish.   

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said he worked with Martin Martinez when he first entered the department, which made the tragedy even more traumatic for him and the other officers who responded.

‘In 26 years, it was one of the scenes that hit me the most,’ Medina said. ‘There were officers on the scene who worked with Martin and we did have to send some officers home because they were disturbed by what had occurred and it took its toll on them.’

The Albuquerque Public Schools issued a statement giving condolences to the Martinez family.

‘Sgt. Martinez will forever be remembered for his lifelong dedication, courage and selflessness to the profession of law enforcement. He had long careers with both the Albuquerque Police Department and the Albuquerque Public Schools Police Department.’

The hot air balloon is believed to have split in two in mid-air, sending the gondola with passengers still onboard crashing into a power line at 100ft, while the balloon itself drifted off. The reason for the gondola breaking off is not yet known, with police on Sunday telling Dailymail.com they are still investigating the sequence of events.  

The balloon came down on a street corner in the West Side neighborhood of Albuquerque around 7am Saturday, about six miles from Albuquerque International Sunport Airport.

Five people have been killed in a hot air balloon crash in New Mexico after it flew into power lines, according to authorities

Five people have been killed in a hot air balloon crash in New Mexico after it flew into power lines, according to authorities

The hot air balloon basket, shown here, separated from the colorful envelope and crashed on a busy intersection in Albuquerque 

The basket lies on the street in the West Side neighborhood of Albuquerque, about six miles from Albuquerque International Sunport Airport, while the investigation continues

The envelope – the colorful balloon part – was later found in the backyard of a home about a mile away. 

Medina said several nearby citizens ran to the basket with fire extinguishers and tried to help the victims. 

Unfortunately, four of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene. One of the victims was rushed to the hospital but died shortly thereafter. 

 ‘We want to thank all the individuals who helped out today. There were greats acts of heroics done by citizens,’ Medina said.    

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, at the podium, said during a Saturday afternoon press conference, 'In 26 years, it was one of the scenes that hit me the most.' Behind him is the city's mayor Tim Keller

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, at the podium, said during a Saturday afternoon press conference, ‘In 26 years, it was one of the scenes that hit me the most.’ Behind him is the city’s mayor Tim Keller

The hot air balloon split in two in mid-air, sending the gondola with passengers still onboard crashing into a power line at 100ft, while the balloon itself drifted off. The reason for the gondola breaking off is not yet known

The hot air balloon split in two in mid-air, sending the gondola with passengers still onboard crashing into a power line at 100ft, while the balloon itself drifted off. The reason for the gondola breaking off is not yet known 

The basket plummeted to the ground in flames, landing in a busy street close to a pharmacy

The basket plummeted to the ground in flames, landing in a busy street close to a pharmacy

The colorful balloon was later found in the backyard of a home about a mile away (above)

The colorful balloon was later found in the backyard of a home about a mile away (above) 

Albuquerque Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said at a press conference that the multi-colored balloon skirted the top of the power lines at around 7am.   

Witnesses told KOAT the basket was on fire when it crashed into the street with several bystanders rushing to try to put the fire out. 

Another witness told KOB4 he was in a gym nearby when he heard a loud bang that ‘sounded like gunshots’.

Joshua Perez rushed out and saw the balloon part flying off detached, before noticing the basket lying in the street. 

He said people turned off the propane on the balloon and ran over with fire extinguishers to help save the victims.

‘I was just thinking save these people, save these people and you could just see them on the ground no one was moving,’ he said.  

‘We turned off the propane off the balloon so it didn’t blow up on them.’  

Police said the four people were already dead when they arrived on the scene.  

The basket is seen on the ground in the busy street Saturday with victims lying close by as emergency crews respond to the scene

The basket is seen on the ground in the busy street Saturday with victims lying close by as emergency crews respond to the scene

Gallegos said: ‘It’s just a very tragic situation. Our officers who arrived first on scene had a tough time when they saw what they saw. These things are just horrible anytime they happen.’  

Gallegos said it was not clear what had caused the balloon to strike the power line but ‘sometimes winds kick up or things happen that make it difficult for balloons to navigate.’ 

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

The collision also left one of the lines dangling down and cut off power to more than 13,000 homes in the area.

Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) crews were seen working to fix the downed line and restore power as soon as possible.

Albuquerque Police, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident.   

The aircraft came down on a street corner in the West Side neighborhood of Albuquerque around 7am Saturday, about six miles from Albuquerque International Sunport Airport

The aircraft came down on a street corner in the West Side neighborhood of Albuquerque around 7am Saturday, about six miles from Albuquerque International Sunport Airport

A friend of the victims is comforted at the scene of the fatal hot air balloon crash

A friend of the victims is comforted at the scene of the fatal hot air balloon crash

Albuquerque Police, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident

Albuquerque Police, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident

Emergency crews on the scene of the deadly crash are seen hiding victims lying by the hot air balloon basket

Emergency crews on the scene of the deadly crash are seen hiding victims lying by the hot air balloon basket 

 According to an NTSB database, there have been 12 fatal hot air ballooning accidents in the US since 2008 and Saturday’s deadly crash comes just months after another fatal balloon incident just outside the city of Albuquerque. 

In January, a passenger in a hot air balloon was ejected from the basket after a hard landing. 

He was taken to hospital but later died from his injuries. 

In 2016 in neighboring Texas, 16 died when a hot air balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture, killing all on board. 

Federal authorities said at the time it was the worst such disaster in US history. 

Albuquerque is a popular destination for hot air balloon rides, with colorful balloons regularly spotted above the skies.  

Every October, the city hosts a nine-day event that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and pilots from around the world.  

Five people were flying in the craft at the time. Two men and two women including the male pilot were killed while a fifth victim is in a critical condition in hospital

Five people were flying in the craft at the time. Two men and two women including the male pilot were killed while a fifth victim is in a critical condition in hospital

Crews repair the power line following the collision Saturday that left at least four dead

Crews repair the power line following the collision Saturday that left at least four dead 



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