Hours after three of his hot air balloons crashed Monday on the West Bank, an accident that sent 11 people to hospitals, Wyoming Balloon Company owner Andrew Breffeilh said he was sorry it happened.
“I just want to express my sorrow and regret that anybody was hurt,” Breffeilh said.
Breffeilh is grappling with what happened —many of his clients are still recovering physically and mentally after trips to the hospital that were far from normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some recalled trying to land a rogue hot air balloon after their pilot was thrown from the basket. Others said they can’t believe they made it out alive and refunds and apologies, if received, might not be enough.
“We could have died,” said Alexis Krayevsky, 18. “It was so scary.”
Breffeilh, who piloted one of the balloons Monday, said he’d never had any passengers injured during his 31 years of owning the company.
“It’s been a point of pride for me,” he told the News&Guide. “We really care about our passengers enough to give up a lot of days and just not allow ourselves to get them into this kind of situation. And somehow or another, we did.”
Breffeilh said it was a severe downdraft that drove the balloons into a field on the Snake River Ranch with more than 30 people on board. Sixteen passengers were in the two larger balloons, Breffeilh said, and two in a smaller balloon. Ten people received care at St. John’s Health, and one person was flown to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center with a head injury.
Three people admitted Monday to St. John’s were released Tuesday. Another seven treated at the hospital were released Monday. The News&Guide was unable to get the name of the woman flown to EIRMC, and without a name could not verify her condition with hospital staff.
Passengers called the crash horrifying.
“It was a pretty traumatic experience,” said Clinton Philips, a passenger in the balloon Breffeilh piloted. “My girls are pretty scratched up, and my son might have a concussion, and we think my wife’s ribs are broken.”
The cause of the accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration.
“We are gathering as much information as possible right now,” NTSB spokesperson Terry Williams told the News&Guide. Weather will be part of the investigation, but Williams said it’s too early to say whether it was a factor.
Blown out of the sky
Breffeilh, though, blamed the weather.
“It wasn’t cloudy when we went out,” he said.
But inclement weather developed as he and his crew were in the field setting up the balloons.
“It was just kind of building over on the backside of the Tetons,” he said. “It looked like it was going to go past us like it often does.”
Alexis Krayevsky’s 12-year-old brother, Robert, was getting ready to board one of the balloons with his family when he started to get concerned about the darkening sky.
“Before we got on I was saying there were dark clouds and it was windy,” Robert said after the crash. “But no one was listening. I don’t know why they didn’t cancel it.”
Breffeilh said his team reads the sky every day before launching their balloons.
“Whatever it is, it can’t do anything in the next hour,” Breffeilh remembered thinking to himself when he saw the clouds. “Unfortunately, it did something in an hour and five minutes. I’ve never seen that happen before.”
After taking off, Breffeilh said, he landed his balloon safely once but the landing spot wasn’t ideal. It was in a glade, and wet, so he took off again to find a drier spot to touch down.
As Breffeilh looked for that spot he said a “huge gust” of wind hit all three balloons and turned them around. Then, he said, “about the most severe downdraft I’ve ever seen in 50 years of flying” hit the balloons and started pushing them toward the ground.
“It was invisible, we didn’t see it coming,” Breffeilh said. “We were headed for a nice fast landing in the open field, but it just hit us like a wall.”
The pilot said he was applying all the power he had to soften the landing, but his basket was still dragged about 300 feet along the ground until it landed in a ditch, laying the balloon across a barbed wire fence.
“We were desperately trying not to fall out,” passenger Clinton Phillips said. “It was lifting us up and slamming us back down again.”
Breffeilh’s balloon was the northernmost of the three. The passenger basket of the southernmost balloon appeared to have been dragged through a wire fence and then a few hundred more feet until it stopped and turned on its side in a glade.
“We were hit the hardest,” recalled Robert, the matter-of-fact middle schooler. “We broke the whole fence.”
Before that basket stopped its pilot was tossed out, and the balloon, full of passengers but without a captain, bounced back into the air.
“He was yelling to pull the red ropes,” Robert said. “Then we tipped over and had to get out because of possible fire. I got out and people were lying on the ground hurt.”
His mom, Yanina, said that after surviving the crash and spending most of the day in the hospital she wasn’t able to sleep Monday night.
“My husband got pretty banged up,” she told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “He has a broken nose, broken rib and a torn shoulder. I have a twisted ankle. But we are alive, thank God.”
Yanina Krayevsky said she thinks there should be safety briefings before each flight and possibly a backup pilot on each balloon.
“We might consider legal action at this point,” she said. “It’s negligence on their part. They should have had another pilot. I understand this rarely happens, but there should be safety precautions.”
Breffeilh hesitated calling what happened a crash, noting that high speed landings are often a little bumpy.
“It doesn’t have brakes, and it doesn’t have landing gear. It bounces and drags,” he said. “That’s what it does, so people are going to call everything a crash.”
But he and his company are cooperating with investigators.
“It’s going to be investigated as an accident because people got hurt,” Breffeilh said, “and I respect that. And I respect the process.”
The company’s process
Breffeilh said he often cancels balloon trips because of weather.
“We cancel most days,” he said. “We may be open for 120 or 130 days in a year, but between spring weather and fall weather, we may make most of our living in three weeks in July, maybe three or four weeks of August.”
Breffeilh said he and his pilots check weather reports, satellites and radar “to make sure nothing’s trying to swing up behind us.
“Everything we can use to help us not be surprised.”
Breffeilh provided the News&Guide with a report he looked at Monday morning, and said “it doesn’t show anything about an impending storm.”
“This was another clear weather day, high pressure and everything, and this freak storm wasn’t in the forecast,” he said.
Mountain Weather meteorologist Jim Woodmencey took a look at the same report and said “there’s nothing there that sticks out.”
“Variable winds at 8 o’clock at 4 knots? That’s probably ideal,” he said.
Woodmencey said that what happened meteorologically “wasn’t a microburst, but it was a downdraft out of the base of clouds” — and it would have been difficult to predict.
“It wasn’t one of those crystal clear mornings, so there was something going on,” the meteorologist said, “but I think it’s just one of those things that was happening on a relatively small scale meteorologically and would have been difficult for, say, an aviation forecast to pick up or even a [National Weather Service] general forecast.”
Breffeilh said any one of his pilots can cancel a flight if they are doubtful about conditiions. The owner has been flying for over three decades, and said his staff has a collective century of experience in balloons. But, on Monday, he said, nobody decided to pull the plug.
“Maybe it was a busy day, maybe we had a lot of people, we were busy trying to put it all together and get it going,” he said, “but nobody said no.”
He described his team of pilots as risk averse, saying they don’t “fly the percentages.” Asked whether he felt like he took a risk Monday, Breffeilh did not answer directly.
“After 31 years, I don’t fly for the money, I fly for the love of it,” he said. “And the love of it does not include hurting anybody.”
Crashing into the pandemic
People were hurt Monday, however.
Breffeilh said a passenger on the smallest balloon broke his ankle. St. John’s spokeswoman Karen Connelly said the 10 people the valley hospital treated primarily had minor lacerations and orthopedic injuries — wrists, shoulders, ankles and the like.
It was a busy morning at the hospital. Staff were already caring for two other life-threatening emergencies around the same time patients from the balloon incidents began arriving around 10 a.m. That led St. John’s to boost its staffing from one emergency room doctor and the usual call schedule to four emergency doctors, two trauma surgeons, three orthopedic surgeons, and nurses and technologists from other hospital areas and clinics.
“It was all hands on deck,” Connelly said in a text.
The hospital also had to implement new protocols for COVID-19 that included temperature checks, masks and keeping family members from being near their loved ones in the hospital.
“We were just working really hard to get information to loved ones who weren’t able to be right there next to their family member,” Connelly said.
Breffeilh said the pandemic has made him “uncomfortable.”
He said he’s implemented some new policies to adapt, like having people meet his staff in their car and follow them to the launch site, but that he generally asks clients “what they want to do.”
Masks aren’t always worn in the tight passenger baskets on the balloon.
“They’re all looking out different directions and at different things on the ground and in the air, so they’re not facing each other as much,” he said, comparing his outfit to a rafting firm: “It’s an awkward situation, because we’re just like float trips. We can’t change the vehicle.”
The Teton County Health Department declined to answer the News&Guide’s question about whether anyone on the balloons had tested positive for COVID-19.
St. John’s Health wouldn’t say if any of the passengers tested positive.
“I can’t provide COVID status of individual patients due to privacy laws,” Connelly said Tuesday. “We treat everyone who comes into our facilities as if they are COVID positive in order to keep the staff and patients safe.”
What’s up from here?
What the rest of the summer will look like for the Wyoming Balloon Company is up in the air.
The FAA spokesman for the northwestern region, Allen Kenizter, said, “there are no prohibitions against this company from continuing to operate.”
Breffeilh said he was able to gather his balloons Monday, canceled flights for Tuesday, and was trying to figure out how to handle the rest of the summer.
“I don’t know what follows,” he said. “We’re just gonna have to do a safety review and sit down and figure it out. I’m not trying to make any hasty decisions.”
Breffeilh said he hadn’t gotten around to thinking about if he’d refund the customers who crashed Monday: “I’m still trying to find out who is injured so I can contact families and offer my condolences.
“I don’t know how I feel about the rest of the season to be honest with you,” he said. “I have a responsibility to my pilots and my employees; they’re looking to me for jobs. But I’m very conflicted emotionally about this whole thing. I’m just shaken to the bones.
“This is not what I’m in it for,” Breffeilh said.