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Oct 1, 2010 8:57 AM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

'Catastrophic explosion'? No sign of balloonists

Two American balloonists who disappeared in rough weather over the Adriatic Sea during a race likely were either struck by lightning or are waiting to be rescued in their life raft, according to a team member.

U.S. and Croatian search and rescue teams on Thursday joined an expanded Italian coast guard search for Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis, who's from Denver. The pair were participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when race officials lost contact with them Wednesday morning.

The United States offered two Navy aircraft to join in the search and one was put to work Thursday afternoon, Italian Coast Guard Lt. Massimo Maccheroni said.

Their 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," flight director Don Cameron said. "If they are on land, they must be in a very remote place. Otherwise we would have heard from them by now."

Cameron said there were thunderstorms in the area at the time of the Americans' disappearance.

Rob Bayly, a member of the pair's retrieval team, told the BBC that the worst-case scenario involves "a catastrophic explosion in the air where they were caught in the thunderstorms, very, very, violent updraughts and downdraughts."

Bayly added "lightning itself could have struck the balloon which - at many thousands of feet - could have been completely destroyed."

The event's website shows competitors' flight patterns, according to tracking information transmitted from the balloons, on an interactive map. Race officials said the tracker devices are set up to send the balloon's position every 15 minutes.

The map shows Abruzzo and Davis' balloon took a twisted path over the sea before organizers lost contact with it.

However, rescuers were hoping for the "good news story," Bayly told the BBC. He said the duo could have "managed a rather desperate water landing, ejected from the balloon and are in a life raft somewhere, yet to be found, and the balloon took off without them with their beacon still on board, therefore not yet triggered."

Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, N.M., and Davis, 65, of Denver, Colo., 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 35,300 cubic feet of gas.

The other 19 teams in this year's competition "have landed safely and all other pilots are safe and well," organizers said.

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.

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 14 miles off the Italian coast, with five boats, several aircraft and a helicopter involved.

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 successfully arranged for the 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," Richardson said in a statement Thursday. "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."

In the 2005 Gordon Bennett race, Richard Abruzzo and Davis hit a power line in Kansas. Abruzzo fell out, suffering several broken bones. Davis landed the balloon safely, although she suffered bruises when she was dragged along the ground while landing the lightly loaded balloon in 40 knot winds.

Richard Abruzzo and Davis finished third in the 2006 America's Challenge gas balloon race by traveling 1,478 miles from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Word of their disappearance came on the eve of the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Organizers of that event said it would go on as planned.

"They'd come back and kick us in the rear if we didn't have it, so its one of those things that's in the spirit of what we do as gas balloon pilots," America's Challenge Deputy Director Kevin Knapp told NBC station KOB-TV.

"Richard, he would be saying you've got to go fly, I mean there's no reason that you need to stay on the ground because I'm out here floating around in the ocean," Abruzzo's former flying partner and teacher Troy Bradley added.

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