ROME – The bodies of two American balloonists and their gondola were discovered in the net of an Italian fishing boat on Monday, two months after the champions disappeared while competing in a race over the Adriatic Sea during a fierce storm.
The boat hauled in the balloon and its gondola with the bodies of the Americans still inside while fishing 11 miles (17 kilometers) north of Vieste, said Port Cmdr. Guido Limongelli in Vieste, a town on the spur of boot-shaped Italy jutting into the Adriatic sea.
He said documents found in the gondola confirmed the identities of Richard Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, and Carol Rymer Davis, 65, of Denver.
The two had been participating in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Sept. 29 as they flew over the Adriatic during a strong storm. They had taken off with some 20 other balloons from the English city of Bristol on Sept. 25.
Search crews looked for the veteran balloonists in vain for a week before determining that their craft had plunged toward the water at 50 mph (80 kph) and they likely didn't survive.
Shortly after midnight Monday, the crew aboard the Sharon fishing vessel felt "something pulling the net, so we realized there was something not right in the net," the boat's captain, Domenico Castriotta, told Sky TG24 TV.
"We pulled it up on the stern side and realized there was a basket, a hot-air balloon type basket coming out," Castriotta said on the dock where his boat moored with its grisly find. "There was a balloon floating in the water" along with the basket as it was hoisted up.
The gondola appeared to be remarkably intact despite the impact: the outer wicker frame had just a few holes punched in it, and cords, canvas flaps and ropes were still attached to the inside. A heap of torn white fabric appeared to be the balloon shell itself.
The Sharon notified port officials, who sent out a patrol boat to escort the vessel back to port, Limongelli said. A coroner was performing an autopsy and officials were investigating to determine what might have caused the balloon to crash.
But radar data during what were believed to be the final moments of the flight convinced experts almost from the start that the craft had crashed into the sea.
"There was a strong storm in the area" when the balloon disappeared, said Giancarlo Salvemini, commander of the port of nearby Manfredonia. "The radar data indicated that it lost 1,600 meters (about a mile) of altitude in less than a minute."
The disappearance of the champion balloonists cast a pall over the ballooning community, which had been gathering for the America's Challenge gas race in the United States — one of the nation's top balloon races — when the search was called off.
"I'm glad at least they found them. Now it will give the family some final closure," said David Melton of Espanola, New Mexico, an active balloonist who flew with Abruzzo in the 1995 America's Challenge. "It's been quite hard on all of them."
The Abruzzo name in particular is synonymous with ballooning. Abruzzo was the son of famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo, who in 1981 was part of the first team to cross the Pacific Ocean by balloon, and who was killed in a small airplane crash in 1985.
The younger Abruzzo and Davis won the 2004 edition of the Gordon Bennett race and the 2003 America's Challenge gas race — one of Abruzzo's five victories in that contest.
Abruzzo family members declined to comment on the discovery of the bodies.
Davis' family issued a statement, thanking the fishermen who made the discovery and the authorities who are now investigating.
"This was always something that was hoped for in the back of everyone's mind since it provides an end to this drawn-out tragedy for both families. As avid members of the ballooning community, Carol and Richard would be pleased that anything that can be learned by experts from today's discovery will lead to a safer experience for all balloonists," the statement said.
Don Cameron, flight director for the 2010 Gordon Bennett race, said he wasn't sure if the deaths would affect race rules in the future but that he expected they would be raised.
He said it would be interesting to look at the balloon material itself to determine if there were burns on it, indicating a possible fire which may have been a cause for the crash.
There also has been speculation that the craft might have been struck by lightning.
The balloon wasn't equipped with a black box-type recorder that might have provided further clues. It had a tracker and transponder, which responds to radar and was what allowed air traffic controllers to determine the balloon's rate of descent in the final moments of flight.
Cameron said that because the race had been over water, Abruzzo and Davis would have had on board gear that would have allowed them to withstand a water ditching had they had time to prepare, including survival suits.
The ANSA news agency reported the bodies were fairly well preserved because of the equipment they were wearing.
Cameron said he hoped Monday's discovery could provide some solace for the families.
"It's better than just not knowing anything," Cameron said. Examining the wreckage could also help answer questions and "throw some light on the reasons why this happened," he added.
Troy Bradley of Albuquerque — a gas balloon pilot who joined Abruzzo in flying the first balloon from North America to Africa in 1992 — said he was surprised to hear the gondola and bodies had been recovered.
"That closure is just part of what everyone's looking for," he told The Associated Press.
Associated Press writers Bob Seavey in Phoenix, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuqueque, New Mexico, and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Updates with quotes from boat's captain, port official, corrects spelling to Vieste in 2nd paragraph, adds detail the balloon disappeared during a bad storm, Davis family thanking fishermen. Adds new contributor name)