ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – On Sunday morning, state police identified the pilot of Saturday’s hot air balloon crash as Nicholas Meleski. The longtime local pilot had been a part of a number of Balloon Fiestas. Friends say the avid balloonist loved flying his iZia balloon around the world and was always smiling, making passengers feel at ease.

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One day after a tragic hot air balloon crash in southwest Albuquerque, five candles now sit amongst the flowers and ribbons at the crash site off Central and Unser — one for each of the victims, including the pilot, Nick Meleski. Longtime friend Maria Abramson remembers the moment she heard about the horrific crash.

“I saw a post yesterday. We were watching YouTube and they had the news on about a balloon incident,” said Abramson, who has since relocated from Albuquerque to Houston. “I saw it and thought, ‘well God, that’s terrible.'”

She says she originally didn’t connect the dots. Abramson says she was floored when his name was listed amongst the victims this morning.

I asked her, ‘Patty, please tell me it isn’t Nick,'” said Abramson, who immediately called a mutual friend here. “She said, ‘it’s Nick.'”

Abramson says she first met Meleski when he was a UPS driver and would often come to her work. She eventually began working for his sister. One day, he invited her up for a flight for her first balloon ride.

“He talked us through the whole flight and explained to us and then we got to a certain point where we were up,” said Abramson. “Throw out a little history about the ballooning and then he would not say anything because he would say I just want you to sit here and enjoy this.”

Abramson this is one of those memories with him that she will always cherish. She hopes, in the future, to return to New Mexico and memorialize him somewhere like the Balloon Museum or Fiesta.

“It was one of the best days of my life,” said Abramson. “When I saw the news and he had perished, I thought, ‘you know, Nick, you’re with him.'”

Some of Meleski’s fellow balloonists reached out to us with their own memories of him. Some say he radiated positivity, while others recalled the times they flew around the world in places like India, Thailand and China. However, all say this is an enormous loss to the ballooning community, not just in Albuquerque, but around the world.

“He loved ballooning,” said Abramson. “You could see it in his eyes.”

Meleski crewed for at least 10 years before getting his pilot’s license back in the mid-90s. In addition to the iZia balloon, Meleski had also flown special shapes like the red Angry Birds and Smokey Bear.