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Investigator: Torn Seam May Have Killed Balloonist

August 7, 1989

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ A hot air balloon that collapsed and plunged 2,000 feet, killing its pilot, had one torn seam and others ″virtually coming apart,″ a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said.

Robert Mock, 52, of Paonia, Colo., died shortly after Saturday night’s competition began at the National Hot Air Balloon Championships. His wife said Mock would have wanted the matches to go on through Aug. 13 as scheduled at the State Fairgrounds in Baton Rouge.

″He would not have wanted this to end the competition,″ said Charlene Mock.

Some of roughly 100 competing balloonists said they were eager to resume the matches, but not quite so venturesome.

″We’re like sand fiddler crabs. We’ll be out in the morning. We may not fly as high, though,″ said Johnny Kreger, a balloonist from High Point, N.C.

On Sunday, NTSB investigator Armond Edwards displayed a rip in Mock’s balloon, named Chariot of Fire Too.

″That started to open up on its own,″ Edwards said in an interview with WBRZ-TV.

He said the rip might have stemmed from the age of Mock’s balloon - 12 years, compared with a normal life span of 10 for such craft - and maneuvering that can put excessive stress on a balloon.

″We’ve been told that people who have observed him that basically, during a terminal descent and stopping a descent by burning a lot of hot air ... you can damage the balloon. And eventually, it becomes very weak,″ Edwards said.

Investigators also found ″other seams where it’s virtually coming apart right now,″ he said.

Edwards said the balloon was being shipped today to Dallas for testing.

Mock radioed before the 5:55 p.m. crash to say a flap near the top of the balloon wasn’t sealing properly and to warn spectators away, Mrs. Mock said.

″He said, ‘It doesn’t look good.’ And I didn’t bother him,″ she said.

A short time later, she related, ″he said, ’Clear the people out from underneath.‴

Mock’s balloon crashed on a strip of grass between traffic lined up near the fairgrounds’ entrance. He died 30 minutes later at Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center of what a hospital spokeswoman called massive trauma.

As many as 10,000 spectators may have seen the crash, said Capt. Robert Shortess of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department.

One witness, Southern University professor Moriba A. Karamoko, said Mock continued to work the balloon’s butane burner controls in an apparent effort to reinflate the craft as it fell.

″He was a lot more in control than I would have been,″ Karamoko said.

Mock apparently shut down his burners about 75 feet above the ground to prevent the gas cylinders from exploding on impact, said Jim Birk, the meet’s director from Defiance, Ohio.

Mrs. Mock said her husband took up ballooning less than two years ago after a 20-year career as a cropduster. His brother-in-law, Bill Lemon, said Mock had more than 8,000 hours of fixed-wing flying and about 200 hours of ballooning.

On his biography sheet for the Baton Rouge meet, Mock listed only one noteworthy achievement: ″32 years with the same wife.″

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