Balloon Pilot Was Among First To Jump

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A passenger who jumped about 50 feet from a flaming hot air balloon basket told reporters from her hospital bed she wonders why the pilot was already safely on the ground with a minor burn. Diane Rutledge was among 12 passengers on the Fantasy Balloon Charters flight last Friday evening when a fire engulfed the basket of the aircraft. Two women, Shannon Knackstedt and her daughter Gemma, didn’t escape the basket and died in the accident, which was witnessed by dozens of horrified friends and family members of passengers. But Rutledge, who suffered burns from the fire and broken bones in her feet from the escape, said pilot Steve Pennock was among the first out of the basket. He reportedly had a first-degree burn to his arm. "He was in perfect shape," she said. "Wouldn't he have stayed on to try to stop the fires?" Fantasy owner John Kaegeorge defended Pennock saying he helped one passenger before being trapped “in a ball of fire” and decided he could better help passengers from outside the balloon, which was still tethered. Kageorge said Pennock’s only hope of removing the four, 100 lb. propane bottles from the basket was from outside, but it appears he didn’t get a chance to do so. As people jumped, the balloon lightened and it broke its tether, shooting 400 feet into the air with the two women still trapped in the burning basket. The basket then dropped into an RV park starting a fire that destroyed three RVs and two vehicles. No one on the ground was hurt. The company has suspended operations and Kageorge said he is cooperating with Transportation Safety Board officials. He said Pennock will be interviewed.