Victim’s family, local community react to final report of deadly hot air balloon crash

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A toxicology report revealed a pilot had drugs in his system during the deadliest hot air balloon crash in New Mexico history.

It was the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report this week that confirmed those drugs “likely” played a role in the deadly crash. 

Those details sent shockwaves through the local ballooning community. For the victims’ families, it’s making an unbearable tragedy even more painful.

“He took this responsibility to take up a group of people and fly a balloon, and he was impaired,” said Manny Sisneros, Mary Martinez’s brother.  

For Manny, and his mother Edwina Sisneros, hot air balloons will never be the same.

“I don’t care to even look at them now, I used to think they were so beautiful,” said Edwina.  

Her daughter, Mary Martinez, was one of the four passengers killed in a balloon crash back in 2021, along with Mary’s husband Marty Martinez, and Susan and John Montoya.

“I remember my sister and Susan asking me, you know, what is it like, and I said it’s great. And I even mentioned the pilot, you know, you have to have a good pilot,” said Manny. 

That’s why reports revealing pilot Nick Meleski was under the influence of marijuana and cocaine during the fatal flight hurt so much more.

“Something has to be done about that, whether it be on a state level or a federal level, you know, they need to regulate that and test these guys. You know, if there’s an issue with the pilot, they need to do something,” Manny said.  

At least one local balloon pilot says something is changing.

“We’re taking this to a new level that I haven’t seen before,” said Bill Lee, owner and operator of X-Treme-Lee Fun Balloon Adventures.  

Gallup-based pilot Bill Lee says he’s already seeing a shift in the balloon community when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

“It’s standard protocol in aviation, they say, eight hours bottle to throttle, right? Well, all the safety seminars I’m attending now are saying, ‘You better make sure that’s 14 hours or even more,'” said Lee. 

He says that shift is also reaching the biggest ballooning event in the world.

“Even like last year’s Balloon Fiesta safety seminar, put on by the Balloon Club of Albuquerque, there was an emphasis on it,” Lee said. 

Balloon Fiesta organizers have not directly addressed the NTSB report, only saying they “hope this will bring closure to the families of those that lost loved ones.”

One balloon pilot suggests the crash is not a sign of a larger issue.

“I think it’s very much isolated, and I think looking at it, it gives us the ability to look more introspectively on our communities, and then be like, ‘How can we help more, and how can we police this, so we have a good industry?” said William Fitzpatrick.

He noted the Federal Aviation Administration recently mandated all balloon pilots receive a medical certification. The final draft of that rule reveals the agency decided against required drug testing. 

But Lee says it’s still happening.

“For the other big ride operators across the country that employ lots of people. Typically, they’re already making that part of their policy,” said Lee.  

He believes the NTSB report should be a wake-up call.

“It’s time to hold a mirror up to ourselves as a ballooning community, and to each of us individually and say, ‘Are we taking the right steps to make sure that we are absolutely safe?’ Before we get in that basket and start to fly,” Lee said.  

It’s a question the Sisneros’ know could’ve saved Mary’s life.

“You cry, you pray, and I hope for the balloonists, the pilot- I hope God forgives him because he must not have been very aware of what he was going to do,” said Edwina. 

Other balloon pilots KOB 4 spoke with say the crash and details regarding the pilot’s drug use are heartbreaking. But they don’t believe it should cast a shadow over the entire ballooning community.

This is not the first time drugs were involved in a deadly balloon crash. 16 people were killed in a crash in Texas back in 2016, and the NTSB found the pilot had several opioids in his system.

That crash inspired a federal bill requiring drug testing for balloon pilots, but it never moved forward.