LEWISTON — A sudden ball of fire erupted above a balloon's basket as it neared liftoff at the Great Falls Balloon Festival Saturday night, injuring four passengers and pilot Andre Boucher.
Two of the passengers were transported to Central Maine Medical Center and two were taken to Maine Medical Center, Joshua Shea, the festival's spokesman, said. One other person was treated by emergency personnel at Payne/Simard Memorial Police Park in Lewiston, where at least 5,000 people had gathered to watch the evening launch.
Pilot Boucher was seen staggering through the crowd with blood on his face and a burned right arm. He was treated for second-degree burns to his face, head, neck and arms, Shea said. Police did not release the names of the passengers.
The accident happened at 7 p.m. The balloon, Passion, would have been the eighth balloon to launch amid the evening's light winds.
Laurie Nichols, who served on Boucher's crew for the balloon, watched from a few feet away. She said Boucher, who lives in Derry, N.H., was working to unhook a propane line. Then, fire ignited near the balloon's burner.
"It just erupted in a big, huge fireball," Nichols said.
Though it lasted only a moment, the flame could be seen across the wide park.
Though she stood several feet away, the fire singed the hair on Nichols' head and arms.
In all, there were eight people inside the basket, including one boy, when the incident happened, said Fern Mendoza and Louise Blouin of Lewiston.
The couple had purchased the ride as a once-in-a-lifetime treat and were standing in the basket with the other passengers when it lifted about 4 feet, Mendoza said. Then, the fireball erupted.
"I heard a big pop," Mendoza said. A moment later, the basket came down and everyone piled out.
Blouin said she was scared and tried to climb out but was having trouble.
"Somebody came out of the audience and pulled me out," she said a few minutes later. Her hair was singed, and she was shaking.
"It was our first and last ride," Mendoza said.
Dr. John Reeder, the festival's balloonmeister, called the incident a "backflash."
Though it's "very rare," he said, balloonists have seen such fireball's before. Typically, they happen during refueling and hurt no one because they happen so fast, he said.
He said he was hopeful that everyone who was hurt will recover fully.
Just minutes after the accident, a representative of the FAA was at the scene and filed an incident report to an office in Portland, he said.
Technically, since the balloon never lifted off entirely, it will be categorized by the FAA as an incident rather than a full-blown accident, Reeder said.
Meanwhile, Nichols said she worried for her friend and the others who were hurt.
Boucher has faced fire before, according to the Eagle-Tribune newspaper of Lawrence, Mass. A year-old story in that paper described Boucher's loss when a fire burned down his three-story barn with much of his ballooning equipment inside.
He vowed to keep ballooning, the newspaper reported.
"I've been doing this for 15 or 16 years," Nichols said. Boucher has been a balloonist even longer, piloting the craft for more than 20 years.
"I've never heard of anything like this happening," she said of Saturday's accident.
The festival will go on as planned, Reeder said.
"If they can go up, they will go up," he said.
Saturday had begun ideally, with all 26 balloons launching in perfect conditions, Shea said
Fog had delayed liftoff for some. But when it left, things went so smoothly some balloons had time for a second morning launch.
By noon, with temperatures in the mid- to upper-80s and bright sun, the crowds largely stayed away. The parade was thinly attended and noontime entertainment saw smaller-than-expected audiences. Even the food stands drew few lines until late afternoon.
"It was the heat," Shea said. "It was oppressive."