ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A newly-released autopsy report reveals what killed a balloon pilot involved in a deadly crash in Albuquerque over the summer. However, there are still many unanswered questions. While toxicology reports released a couple of months ago show the pilot, Nick Meleski, had cocaine and THC in his system at the time of the crash, the autopsy shows the drugs did not cause his death — via a medical emergency like a heart attack — prior to the balloon hitting power lines.
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“I have not seen any cases where drugs caused a medical incident in the air,” said Chris Pezalla, an aviation attorney. “The main concern, of course, is being able to perceive the environment in front of you and make appropriate choices.”
The balloon hit power lines on June 26, killing Meleski and his four passengers. OMI says Meleski died of blunt force trauma with multiple injuries that were a direct result of the gondola falling more than 100 feet to the ground, ruling the death an accident. Pezalla says the autopsy ruling doesn’t necessarily define the cause of the crash though, with many variables at play.
“With many accidents, we find there are multiple factors that can cause an accident or contribute to an accident, such as whether or possibly the impairment of a pilot, which is something that’s still being investigated,” said Pezalla. “It may not be a single cause. It may be multiple factors here.”
Some toxicology experts who spoke with KRQE News 13 following the release of the report, say the levels of pot and cocaine were more than enough to cause impairment. However, Pezalla clarified that just because drugs were in Meleski’s system at the time, it doesn’t necessarily mean he was impaired while flying.
“Drugs stay in a person’s system for a significant period of time after they’re no longer under the influence, so we may never know if that was a factor in this,” said Pezalla. “There could also be other factors that contribute such as the visibility of power lines so that’s something that we’re going to look at from an air safety standpoint, as well, regardless of the condition of the pilot.”
Though the crash remains under investigation, Pezalla says the findings are unlikely to change the approach of lawyers involved with any of the ongoing lawsuits. The family of one of the victims, Martin “Marty” Martinez, filed a lawsuit against the ride company Meleski operated under, but it’s unclear if any of the other families will also sue.
The full crash report still hasn’t been released by the FAA or NTSB. That isn’t expected to be completed until sometime next year.