Croatian teams join search for missing US balloonists

-A A +A
By Associated Press

ROME (AP) — Croatian rescue teams on Thursday joined an expanded Italian coast guard search for two American balloonists who disappeared in rough weather over the Adriatic.

Croatian coastal aircraft crews were scouring the area around Croatia's distant, uninhabited islet of Palagruza, said Marina Haluzan, the spokeswoman for the Croatian Ministry of the Sea and Transport.

"There's no news so far about the missing balloon," she said in a statement, adding that Croatian and Italian coastal authorities were in touch and coordinating the search.

Balloon pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer-Davis were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Wednesday morning.

The balloon was equipped with a satellite telephone, VHF radios, radar transponder and two mobile telephones. No signal has been detected from the balloon's Emergency Location Transmitter, which should activate on contact with water.

"They could not possibly still be flying," said flight director Don Cameron. "If they are on land, they must be in a very remote place, otherwise we would have heard from them by now."

Palagruza is located in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, 60 nautical miles from the Croatian coast and 29 nautical miles from Italian coast.

On Thursday, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center expanded its search to 22 kilometers (14 miles) off the Italian coast, with five boats, several aircraft and a helicopter involved.

Abruzzo, 47 of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Davis, 65, of Denver, Colorado, are experienced balloonists and won the 2004 edition of the Gordon Bennett race from Thionville, France to Vannas, Sweden.

In the race, teams try to fly the farthest on a maximum of about 1,000 cubic meters (35,300 cubic feet) of gas.

Abruzzo is 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.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has requested assistance from the U.S. State Department in getting U.S. military forces to join the search.

"I've been following the search for Richard and Carol all day and I'm optimistic that they will be located soon," Richardson said.

"I've been in contact with the Abruzzo family and have offered any help they need in getting Richard back home to them safely. My thoughts are also with Carol's family as they await word on their loved one."

Contact with the pair was lost Wednesday morning, although the balloon was equipped with a satellite telephone, VHF radios, radar transponder and two mobile telephones.

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

Italian coast guards said a search was under way for the balloon, one of 20 that set off Saturday from the English coastal city of Bristol. Spokesman Lt. Massimo Maccheroni, said the last signal received from the balloon's GPS was at 8 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) Wednesday. Ut showed the craft was 13 miles (21 kilometers) off the Gargano coast in the Adriatic Sea.

He said helicopters, military aircraft and three boats were taking part in the search. A ground search on the coast also was under way.

Conditions in the area were reported to be poor, with rough seas and thunderstorms.

Abruzzo and Davis have competed together in the past, finishing third in the 2006 America's Challenge gas balloon race by traveling 1,478 miles (2,378 kilometers) from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Davis is a radiologist from Colorado who previously participated in the race, her medical office said Wednesday. In a 2007 interview with Denver Woman magazine, she recalled competing in a race in 2004 alongside Abruzzo.

"We raced through six hours of drenching heavy rain — it was like the tropics. It poured into the basket. We were just soaked. It was heavy enough that it formed a little lake in the top of the balloon, so we pulled the valve and it would drench us," she told the magazine.

Richard Abruzzo's sister-in-law, Sandra Abruzzo, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, said she had been told the balloonists had suffered "an issue with the electrical" components in the balloon, and speculated that the loss of contact could be related to that.

Garth Sonnenberg, also of Albuquerque and a friend of Abruzzo's since childhood, said he'd heard they had radio issues throughout the flight. "We're hoping that it's a good possibility that it's just a radio problem," he said.

Friends said ballooning is in Abruzzo's blood. His father and two other Albuquerque residents, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman, made the first successful balloon flight over the Atlantic in a helium-filled balloon in 1978, landing in France after a flight of 137 hours.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who has flown with Abruzzo in several balloon races, said he was worried. He said Abruzzo always carried satellite phones when Johnson flew with him, and should not have lost contact.

Johnson said Abruzzo borrowed his high-altitude suit for the Gordon Bennett flight, and told Johnson he'd be back in plenty of time for him and Johnson to compete in the America's Challenge gas balloon race, which is scheduled to launch from Albuquerque on Tuesday.


By RAPHAEL G. SATTER,Associated Press Writer

Associated Press writers Sue Major Holmes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.