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BARI, Italy (AP) — Two missing American balloonists plunged toward the Adriatic Sea at 50 mph (80 kph) and likely didn't survive, race organizers said Friday.
Flight director Don Cameron said that high rate of descent, if confirmed, leads him to be "very pessimistic" about the fate of veteran pilots Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis.
Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Davis, 65, of Denver, Colorado, were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Wednesday morning in rough weather over the Adriatic Sea.
Race organizers said the balloon "appears to have suffered a sudden and unexpected failure."
"It's very bad news," Cameron said.
Cameron said he received information Friday from Zagreb's air traffic control indicating the balloon was at 5,300 feet (1,615 meters) and descended slowly at first but then at a rate of 50 mph until 600 feet (180 meters).
"At this rate of descent to the surface, survival would be unlikely," the race organizers said in a statement.
Cameron stressed that the Croatian readings were from the outer limits of its radar zone, though, and said he hoped they were incorrect.
"It's the only shred of hope," he said, adding that he expects to confirm the data with Italian air traffic controllers in Brindisi, on the other side of the Adriatic, on Saturday.
The Italian coast guard, the U.S. Navy and Croatian coastal aircraft crews have been scouring the area around Croatia's distant, uninhabited islet of Palagruza.
Abruzzo works as part of a prominent family business in Albuquerque that is involved in real estate and operations of the Sandia Peak tramway, Sandia Ski Area and Ski Santa Fe. Richard Abruzzo's involvement focuses on ski area management.
Davis is a radiologist who specializes in reading breast mammograms.
The Abruzzo name is synonymous with ballooning. 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.
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.
Abruzzo's wife, Nancy, was in Bari at coast guard headquarters on Friday monitoring the search effort. She said her husband had made a final radio transmission saying that he was preparing to ditch in the sea.
"We have every reason to believe that with his final transmission to air traffic that he would have had enough, you know, an adequate amount of time to prepare for an emergency sea landing which, you know, they are very prepared for," she said.
She said she had been ballooning with her husband for 17 years.
"It's in his blood. It's who he is. This is what he loves. This is his passion," said Abruzzo, who spoke to the AP via cell phone before word about her husband had come through.
The Italian coast guard was unaware of any final radio transmission, said spokesman Lt. Massimo Maccheroni. He said the coast guard merely received information about the last automatic signal the balloon communicated to the air traffic control center in Bridinsi before losing contact.
Most gas balloon racers — including Abruzzo and Davis — are hobbyists who spend thousands of dollars on the high-flying adventure sport. The balloons are designed specifically for racing, equipped with a satellite telephone, VHF radios, radar transponder and two mobile telephones. In this race, the team were trying to fly the farthest on a maximum of about 1,000 cubic meters (35,300 cubic feet) of gas.
Kevin Knapp, a pilot and co-director of Americas Challenge race scheduled to begin Tuesday in Albuquerque said the ballooning community was still focused on the search effort.
"Nobody out here is ready to give up," he said.
The America's Challenge, which is the U.S. version of the Gordon Bennett race, will go ahead as planned, he said, adding that Abruzzo and Davis would want it that way.
"There have been deaths on the hot air field during the balloon fiesta in the past. We've had moments of silence and then we continue the fiesta. Yes, it's in our hearts and minds, but as they say, the show must go on. Life continues. That's what they would want."
By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writers
PAOLO LUCARIELLO, Associated Press Writers
Winfield reported from Rome. Associated Press reporter Mark Carlson in Phoenix and Tim Korte in Albuquerque contributed to this report.