ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – A recently released autopsy report reveals what killed a balloon pilot involved in a fatal crash in Albuquerque over the summer. However, there are still many unanswered questions. While toxicology reports released a few months ago show that the pilot, Nick Meleski, had cocaine and THC in his system at the time of the accident, the autopsy shows that the drugs did not cause his dead – via a medical emergency like a heart attack – before the ball hit the power lines.
“I haven’t seen any cases where the drug 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 the appropriate choices.”
The balloon struck power lines on June 26, killing Meleski and his four passengers. OMI says Meleski died of blunt force trauma with multiple injuries resulting directly from the gondola falling more than 100 feet off the ground, calling the death an accident. Pezalla says the autopsy decision doesn’t necessarily define the cause of the accident, with many variables at play.
“With many accidents, we find that there are multiple factors that can cause an accident or contribute to an accident, such as the impairment or possible impairment of a pilot, which is always under investigation” , said Pezalla. “It may not be a single cause. There may be multiple factors here.
Some toxicology experts who spoke with KRQE News 13 after the report was released 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 did not mean he was intoxicated while flying.
“Drugs stay in a person’s system for a significant period of time after they are no longer under the influence, so we may never know if that was a factor,” Pezalla said. “There could also be other contributing factors, such as visibility of power lines, so that’s something we’ll be looking at from an aviation safety perspective as well, regardless of the pilot’s condition.”
Although the crash is still under investigation, Pezalla says the findings are unlikely to change the approach of attorneys involved in one of the ongoing lawsuits. The family of one of the victims, Martin “Marty” Martinez, has filed a lawsuit against ride company Meleski, but it’s unclear whether any of the other families will also sue.
The full accident report has still not been released by the FAA or the NTSB. It shouldn’t be finished until next year.