- Associated Press - Monday, December 6, 2010

ROME (AP) — An Italian fishing boat on Monday pulled the remains of two American balloonists from the Adriatic Sea, ending a two-month hunt for the pair’s bodies in one of ballooning’s darkest chapters.

The boat hauled in the balloon and its gondola with the bodies of the Americans still inside while fishing 11 miles north of Vieste before dawn, said Cmdr. Guido Limongelli of the Vieste port. Viete is on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast in the southern Puglia region, which makes up the “heel” of boot-shaped Italy.

He said documents found in the gondola confirmed the identities of Richard Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque and Carol Rymer Davis, 65, of Denver.

The two were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Sept. 29 as they flew over the Adriatic. They took off with some 20 other balloons from the English city of Bristol on Sept. 25.

Search crews looked for the veteran balloonists in vain for a week before determining that their craft had plunged toward the water at 50 mph and they likely didn’t survive.

The gondola appeared to be remarkably intact despite the impact: The outer wicker frame had just a few holes punched in it, and cords, canvas flaps and ropes still were attached to the inside. A heap of torn white fabric appeared to be the balloon shell itself.

As soon as the crew of the fishing boat Sharon discovered what was in their nets, they alerted port officials in Vieste, who sent out a patrol boat to escort the vessel back to port, Cmdr. Limongelli said. A coroner was performing an autopsy, and officials were investigating to determine what might have caused the balloon to crash.

The disappearance of the champion balloonists cast a pall over the ballooning community, which was gathering for the America’s Challenge gas race in the United States — one of the nation’s top balloon races — when the search was called off.

“I’m glad at least they found them. Now it will give the family some final closure,” said David Melton of Espanola, N.M., an active balloonist who flew with Abruzzo in the 1995 America’s Challenge. “It’s been quite hard on all of them.”

The Abruzzo name in particular is synonymous with ballooning. Abruzzo was the son of famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo, who was in 1981 part of the first team to cross the Pacific Ocean by balloon, and who was killed in a small-airplane crash in 1985.

The younger Abruzzo and Davis won the 2004 edition of the Gordon Bennett race and the 2003 America’s Challenge gas race — one of Abruzzo’s five victories in that race.

Don Cameron, flight director for the 2010 Gordon Bennett race, said he wasn’t sure if the deaths would affect race rules in the future but said he expected it would be raised.

He said it would be interesting to look at the balloon material itself to determine whether there were burns on it, indicating a possible fire that may have been a cause for the crash.

The balloon wasn’t equipped with a black-box-type recorder that might have provided further clues. It had a tracker and transponder, which responds to radar and was what allowed air traffic controllers to determine the balloon’s rate of descent in the final moments of flight.

Mr. Cameron said that because the race was over water, Abruzzo and Davis would have had on board gear, including survival suits, that would have allowed them to withstand a water ditching had they had time to prepare.

The ANSA news agency reported the bodies were fairly well preserved because of the equipment they were wearing.

Mr. Cameron said he hoped Monday’s discovery could provide some solace for the families.

“It’s better than just not knowing anything,” Mr. Cameron said. Examining the wreckage also could help answer questions and “throw some light on the reasons why this happened,” he added.

Associated Press writers Bob Seavey in Phoenix and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

 

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