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Ballonist Fossett Rescued From Sea

August 17, 1998

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ American millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett was rescued by a yacht today, hours after the balloon he was trying to fly around the world crashed into the Coral Sea, his spokeswoman said.

Fossett was picked up 500 miles off the east coast of Australia by the yacht Atlanta after completing two-thirds of his planned trip, spokeswoman Judy Jasper said at the operation’s headquarters in St. Louis.

Fossett told one reporter that his balloon had been struck by hail and lightning in a fierce storm.

Earlier, he had given a thumbs up to a rescue plane from Sydney which reached the crash site in the Coral Sea. He also had been in regular radio contact with a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules C-130.

``He reports being fine,″ Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokesman Robin Poke told The Associated Press before the Atlanta yacht reached Fossett.

Fossett had been two-thirds of the way through his effort to circle the globe and the balloon was heading toward its final destination of Argentina when contact was lost, said Alan Blount, director of mission control for the journey.

A French military plane dropped a 15-man life raft to Fossett this morning, after reaching the downed balloon near the Chesterfield Islands, the French Navy in Noumea, New Caledonia.

The French plane circled Fossett until its fuel began to run low, then headed back to its home base in Noumea, Poke said.

``He has been waving to the aircraft as they fly overhead, giving the thumbs-up,″ New Zealand defense forces spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Bill Morley said.

Darren Curtis from The TV 7 Network in Australia, who was aboard the Australian Hercules C-130, talked to Fossett via the plane’s radio.

``He said he was caught in a giant thunderstorm with hail and lightning which actually ruptured his balloon. He fell 29,000 feet into the ocean,″ Curtis said.

``He says when he hit the ocean his balloon capsule caught fire and he had to evacuate into a tiny life raft,″ Curtis said.

The Atlanta will hand Fossett off to the New Zealand navy tanker Endeavour, which about three hours behind Atlanta.

Seas in the area were relatively calm but the crew was concerned because the area is near a coral reef that could be full of sharks. It was shortly after midnight Australian time when the balloon ran into trouble.

Australian Maritime Rescue Center spokesman Brian Hill told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that Fossett came down near the Bellona Reefs, an uncharted region which could make ship navigation and the rescue difficult.

About five hours before Fossett’s warning locator sounded, meteorologist Bob Rice had cautioned the balloonist he was approaching strong thunderstorms _ and that they would be nearly impossible to avoid.

``There’s a good chance that there might have been a lightning hit on the capsule,″ Rice said. ``But these balloons are very strong. It’s just too early to know what happened.″

Fossett was equipped with a wet suit and life raft, and the capsule of the balloon was seaworthy, but not leakproof.

Fossett still had to cross a massive stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Argentina and had at least another five days of travel before he was expected to reach South America, from where he took off Aug. 7.

Fossett, from Chicago, was making his fourth attempt to fly around the world. He has also run marathons, climbed mountains and raced in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.

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