Alfine Tragedy

Saturday, January 29, 2000

The day started out well: The weather was not perfect, but there were patches of blue, and the temperature was a bit warmer than it had been. I was in Corkscrew Balloon II with Annie, Patty, Ellie and Hermann. Alf was in the new balloon with Sian, Denise and Cindy. I was glad to have another opportunity to shoot more photos of the Screwmaids. (That's me in the middle of the picture below, snapping away at CB3 with one of my cameras.)

The problems began because of an apparent brake problem with the Volkswagen special shape balloon (which we had seen earlier at the festival). The New Beetle crashed into the side of Corkscrew Balloon III, with the car's bumper hitting CB3 at Christen's right shoulder.

The impact tore through the fabric, and the resulting rapid airflow out of the envelope tossed the balloon severely. Perhaps worse, the change of pressure inside the envelope caused the propane burners to flare out of control. The flames scorched an even larger hole in the envelope, greatly exacerbating the problem, and the entire rig became impossible to manage.

Mike was eventually able to bring the balloon back under control, but during the few seconds of confusion and panic, everything went wrong in a horrible string of accidents and miscalculations.

Perhaps tragedy might have been avoided if Denise had not been doing a "basket dance" on the rim of the wicker basket at the time of impact. Here, I feel somewhat responsible, since I had asked if I could get some photos of her climbing up by the Screwmaids that are painted on the envelope. Of course, I honestly didn't expect her to attempt complex dance moves while she was up there, and I certainly had no way of knowing that CB3 would be rammed by an errant airborne Beetle just as Denise was completing a spin.

As Denise lost her footing she grabbed out to catch something ... anything. It's not entirely clear whether she grabbed Alf in her panic, or if in fact he was trying to catch her and haul her back into the basket as she fell. In any event, one grabbed the other and at that point gravity took charge of their destinies. The other passengers in Corkscrew Balloon III were lucky enough not to see it happen: They were holding on to anything they could grasp, in most cases with their eyes shut. Of course, Mike, ever calm and professional, was doing all he could to make a safe landing and ensure the survival of the passengers still in the basket. Over in Corkscrew Balloon II, however, we watched in horror as the two bodies fell 800 feet to the ground. Time seemed to slow down, and it felt like minutes passed before the bodies' impact caused two puffs of powdery snow to rise silently from the ground where they hit.

Pilot Bill got us to the ground as quickly as safety permitted, and we ran over to the spot where Denise and Alf had landed. The recent snowfall, which had been approximately 20 inches in Chateau d'Oex, was a bit less here. Still, it actually did break their fall slightly. Miraculously, they were both still breathing, although that breathing was shallow at best.

On the chance that there might be future litigation, I advised everyone not to touch the bodies. (I will be researching Swiss traffic laws to determine whether hot air balloons with an automotive design element must yield in the same manner in the air as do autos on the ground.) Annie took some photos, in case we needed them for insurance purposes, and then we left the bodies lying where they fell until the police came.

The Swiss authorities were actually quite prompt in getting to the scene. Apparently they monitor radio communications closely during the Hot Air Balloon Festival, and they had heard Pilot Bill attempting to reach Mike during CB3's desperate descent. Thus, the patrol car arrived even as we were on the phone to police headquarters.

The police were all business. (I was actually surprised that they had sidearms, as I didn't think police in Europe normally carried guns.) They asked some very pointed questions. Hermann was far calmer than most of us, and he was best able to describe what had happened. Ultimately, they led Mike off for further questioning at the station. I don't think he was handcuffed, but everything is a bit blurry in my mind. In any event, we aren't sure when we'll see him again.

The police also arranged for two ambulances to come and retrieve the nearly lifeless bodies of Denise and Alf. They are presently in a private hospital in Gstaad. Alf, during brief periods of semi-consciousness, keeps asking the hospital staff for tart cards. Denise remains in a coma, although she moves slowly in her bed in ways that appear to mimic various dance steps, and every 45 minutes, like clockwork, she screams out (in a voice that is as terrifying to those around her as the vision within her own head must be): "Bad doggie!!! ... bad, BAD doggie!!!" ... and then she is still again.

Up next: Linda's Journal

Most of Alf's regular site is still available.

Follow-up: July 2001

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