OCEANSIDE- Cheri Dias remembers only the red flash of Rosemary Wooley Phillips’ jacket as Phillips slipped from a hot air balloon that had become caught in power lines near Albuquerque, N.M., and fell 70 feet to her death last year.
“The people on the ground said she was screaming as she fell,” Dias said Wednesday. “I don’t remember hearing her scream. In that moment, you are just existing.”
On Monday, Dias, two friends and two of Phillips’ siblings settled for a total of $1.4 million in the Oct. 8, 2007, accident that killed Phillips and left Dias and two friends with broken bones.
Dias still lives in the Oceanside home she and Phillips shared.
The ill-fated balloon ride came at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The balloon, which was named “Heavenly Ride,” got tangled in power lines about 12 minutes after it lifted up into the sky for a sightseeing excursion, according to an investigative report.
On Wednesday, a Fiesta spokesperson said in an email that officials “are not at liberty to comment on specifics of the settlement. But, Balloon Fiesta hopes that in some way, the settlement will help the families deal with their loss.”
The spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether they have made safety changes in the wake of this or any other incidents.
From 1990 to 2008, seven people died when their balloons hit or snagged power lines during the annual fiesta, according to news reports.
The most recent death came two months ago on Oct. 10, when a balloon struck power lines and exploded into flames, killing a pilot.
Dias, 71, fell silent for long stretches Wednesday as she talked about crashing into the power lines, about watching her partner slip through a hole in the balloon’s gondola, about the subsequent crash that left her with a broken ankle and a friend with a broken back. The fourth woman in the balloon was reportedly uninjured.
Until now, she has kept a media silence, but agreed to talk after the settlement was reached.
According to an accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, the pilot became distracted when he saw another balloon crash into a house. It was then that his balloon punched the power lines.
“When we hit the wires, it almost threw us out,” Dias said. “Rosemary and I tried to hold onto the edge (of the basket).”
The balloon’s basket began to tip, she said.
Pilot Tom Reyes tossed a tow line to the ground, and his crew attached it to a pickup truck to tug the balloon free of the power lines, the report stated.
But the power wire had wrapped around a fuel tank handle on the balloon and sawed a hole into the basket, the NTSB reporter.
The fuel tank slipped through. Seconds later, so did Phillips.
Dias doesn’t remember the specifics, but she said a friend in the balloon told her Dias and Phillips exchanged final ‘I love you’ just before Phillips fell.
Almost immediately after the woman fell, the balloon shot like a rocket from the power lines, Dias said and the NTSB reported. It drifted east, and then crashed onto a road.
“I was jarred unbelievably,” Dias said. “I bounced.”
Dias said that after they pay their attorney fees, the remainder of the money will be split four ways among Phillips’ two siblings and the three women who survived the crash.
Dias’ attorney, Greg Patton, said the women sued the Fiesta as well as the companies that owned and operated the balloon. They also sued pilot Reyes, but he recently died, Patton said.
Patton said the $1.4 million agreement was the limit of what the Fiesta was insured to cover.
The money, Dias said, will never replace Phillips, who she said had a life of adventure. Phillips was a City Council member in Nome, Alaska, from 1978 to 1982, and was the executive director of the famed Iditarod sled dog race nearly two decades ago.
“Everybody love Rosemary,” Dias said, her face aglow with the memory of the woman she spent 14 years with. “I could never figure out how come she chose me. I felt very lucky and very blessed.”
“She was absolutely the love of my life.”