Hot Air Balloon Fatalities in New Mexico: The Forensic Pathology Experience

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INTRODUCTION: Albuquerque New Mexico is the "hot air balloon capital of the world," with balloons flying throughout the year and during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The medical literature regarding morbidity and mortality in hot air balloon accidents is relatively scarce.

METHODS: A series of fatal, hot air balloon accidents were identified by querying and analyzing the databases of the Office of the Medical Investigator in New Mexico from 1972 to 2021.

RESULTS: Twenty-one lethal cases from 11 hot air balloon accidents were evaluated. Fifty-seven percent of decedents were male, the age range was 29 to 74 years, and all the decedents were White. Causes of death were certified as multiple injuries (52.4%), blunt trauma (42.9%), and electrocution (4.76%). The manner of death was accidental in all cases. Most common autopsy findings were rib fractures (100%), pelvic fractures (81.8%), and subarachnoid hemorrhage (72.7%). October was the month with the most accidents (63.63%), the most common cause was the pilot's failure to maintain clearance from obstacles (14.3%), and the most frequent collision was with power lines (63.6%).

CONCLUSIONS: Hot air balloon fatalities are rare, and the patterns of injury resemble those seen in free falls from significant heights with extensive blunt trauma.