Nigel Vonas knew the video he was shooting of a hot air balloon that caught fire on liftoff near Vancouver was “morbid” and “disgusting” — his words. And in the days since the Friday evening tragedy, he’s searched long and hard to find meaning in what he recorded.
“All I can come up with is just a very simple message: Life is precious,” Vonas told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer during a live interview Monday. “We need to stop for a second. Put down the iPhones, put down the guns and just realize that life is beautiful. You never know when it’s going to be your last chance to say ‘I love you’ to the person beside you.”
There were no such opportunities for the 12 passengers and the pilot in the gondola of the huge balloon. One of the survivors, Jack Ziyone, had boarded the craft with his wife, Gisela, their son, Dean, and Gisela’s sister, who was visiting from Germany.“We were a minute away from takeoff and were all getting our pictures taken,” he said.
Suddenly flames erupted from above them and the pilot yelled at everyone to get off.
“It just happened so fast. You have no time to think, just to react.”
Jack said he followed the pilot out of the gondola, which was starting to rise from the ground. Gisela used a step hole in the basket to get over the chest-high wall and rolled out.
“I was standing next to Jack,” Gisela said. “I jumped out. He didn’t even realize I jumped out. My sister saw me get out.”
No one escaped without injury, although Gisela and Jack were relatively unscathed. Their son, who spoke to NBC’s John Larson in a taped interview from a hospital, suffered fractures to his pelvis and elbow. Gisela’s sister was in another hospital with unspecified injuries.
Dean Ziyone told Larson that it appeared that something went wrong with the plumbing feeding propane gas from tanks on the gondola to the burners that heated the air in the balloon. The fire broke out overhead, then a piece of tubing came loose and started spraying fire wildly.
Jack credited the pilot, whose name was not released, with putting his body between the flaming tube and his passengers. “He took the brunt of the fire,” Jack said, and appeared to have suffered severe burns.
The pilot, described as a veteran who has taken 10,000 passengers aloft without mishap during a long career, was also hospitalized.
Two passengers couldn’t escape at all. Canadian authorities confirmed they were the wife and daughter of another passenger who did escape.
“When I was on the ground, he was crying and pointing up,” Jack said. “‘My wife and daughter are up there!’ He was crying. He couldn’t do a thing about it.”
Heroism and sorrowAnother passenger, Diana Rutledge, also talked to Larson from a hospital, where she is recovering from broken bones in her feet.
“I got my legs over the balloon, and as I was leaving the balloon, I put my arms around the woman next to me and I took her with me,” she said, choking back tears.
Vonas was perhaps a mile away when he saw the fire erupt and grabbed his video camera.
“At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing,” he told Lauer. “It was obviously a sight we’ve never seen. It was just excitement to see something very strange going on in the sky. Those thoughts quickly turned to morbid thoughts that perhaps there was something very wrong going on up there.”
Vonas saw that not everyone managed to bail out.
“It looked like there was some sort of struggle going on, on board that balloon,” he said. “What I thought was bodies on fire, and it’s just disgusting, sick thoughts are going through your head that there’s death going on right now in front of you.”
“We’re lucky to be alive,” said Jack Ziyone. “Very, very lucky.”