Saturday started out happily for five people who were out on a hot air balloon ride in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Susan Montoya, 65, was going for her first balloon ride to celebrate her time as assistant principal at Georgia O’Keefe Elementary School before moving to another school.
Montoya had always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon, and Albuquerque Public School Superintendent Scott Elder said she’d even referred to it as a bucket list item, according to CNN. Her husband, John Montoya, 61, was a special education assistant at Sandia High School and was also on board.
Martin Martinez, 62, was a retired police officer with the Albuquerque Police Department and worked as a security sergeant at Valley High School. His wife, Mary Matinez, 59, was with him that morning.
“He loved his wife,” school system police chief Steve Gallegos told CNN. “He talked a lot about his wife, his two sons and his two dogs. He was probably the most honest guy I ever met in my life.”
Nicholas Meleski, 62, was the pilot and was also connected to the New Mexico public school system, as he was the dad of a school crisis counselor.
At around 7:00 Saturday morning, the hot air balloon hit the tops of power lines and fell nearly 100 feet into the middle of a busy street, catching fire in the process.
People on the ground who spotted the accident did what they could, grabbing fire extinguishers and sending up prayers, but four of the passengers died on the scene. John Montoya was taken to the hospital but later died of his injuries.
Some of the officers who responded to the scene had personally worked with Martin Martinez. Police Chief Harold Medina said they were sent home, as the incident was hard on them.
Hot air balloon rides are very common in New Mexico, and the tragedy was unexpected and doubly sad as it was supposed to be a gift to Susan Montoya.
“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, according to KOB-TV.
“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.”
“This is a tragedy that is uniquely felt and hits uniquely hard at home here in Albuquerque and in the ballooning community,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash to determine what caused the accident.
“Our balloonists tend to be very much experts at navigating, but sometimes we have these types of tragic accidents,” Gallegos said, according to NPR.
On Monday, a crisis team was available to the staff members impacted by this great loss.
A makeshift memorial has been set up near the site of the accident in memory of those who spent their lives bettering the lives of others.
“They dedicated their lives to children and that’s honorable and noble,” Elder said.
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