Balloon accident rocks New Mexico ski community

When two Americans disappeared in a balloon accident last week, it made international news. But as SNEWS found out, the New Mexico ski industry is taking the incident very personally.
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When hot air balloonists Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis vanished in stormy weather over the Adriatic Sea Sept. 29, it sent shockwaves through the international ballooning family-as well as the tight-knit New Mexico ski community.

A longtime competitor in ballooning events around the world, Abruzzo, 47, is part of a family business in Albuquerque that owns both the Sandia Ski Area and Ski Santa Fe.

"We all know each other pretty well down here," said Chris Stagg, vice president at Taos Ski Valley. "We've all worked together or grown up together, and even though we're kind of competitors, we all look out for each other, too. I think we're all just hoping things turn out better than they look right now because Richard was such a special guy."

Abruzzo and Davis were competing in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when they disappeared. According to race organizers, after an unknown mechanical problem, the pair's balloon plummeted at a rate of 50 mph into the sea.

Italian search crews called off their operations Tuesday morning after finding no trace of the two. But back in New Mexico, family and friends of Abruzzo remain hopeful that the pair may have somehow avoided a crash and landed on a nearby island given that search parties were unable to locate any debris.

"They still haven't found the balloon, so as long as that's the case, there is still hope," said Dan McCarthy, owner of Santa Fe Mountain Sports, a local ski and snowboard shop. "I hope Nancy and the rest of the Abruzzos know how much we care, and will use that energy to help them get through this tough time."

In Santa Fe, Abruzzo's wife, Nancy, works at a local real estate firm, and Richard had recently increased his role in the Santa Ski Team on which his son, Rico, is a member.

"Richard and I took over as vice president and president of the Santa Fe Ski Team in July," said Paul Laur, owner of the Santa Fe Cider Company. "Richard shepherded through the new start shack and race course on Muerte run with the Ski Area, Forest Service and USSA homologation inspector. He enthusiastically helped out in the construction of the course and even apologized for not being able to finish the project just before he left for England and the balloon race."

"We are all very saddened by the disappearance of Richard. He is such a great guy, father and friend," added Laur.

Adding to the impact of Abruzzo's absence, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicked off its nine-day event Oct. 2. Abruzzo was scheduled to compete in this year's America's Challenge race during the Fiesta, with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson as his partner.

Instead, the America's Challenge teams have afforded Abruzzo and Davis the symbolic first launch position in the competition. Following the playing of the national anthem, competitors, officials, and crews will release white balloons, each carrying into the sky two small chile ristras, which are strings of dried chilis.

The tradition was established during the record-setting transatlantic flight of the Double Eagle II, when Richard's father Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, and Larry Newman carried a ristra for good luck. The senior Abruzzo died in a private plane crash near Albuquerque in 1985.

-- Peter Kray

On Oct. 6, 2010, veteran journalist Peter Kray joined the SNEWS team and is now editor of the new SNEWS WinterSports channel. We trust you are enjoying the full offering of WinterSports news. Be sure to email your friends and let them know the best WinterSports news has arrived -- just in time for the start of the winter season. Got WinterSports news? Send your WinterSports news to Kray at pkray@snewsnet.com. Subscribers can also post WinterSports news releases directly to the SNEWS website. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com to learn about posting your own news releases, or for any other questions or comments. We love to hear from our readers!

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