Red and yellow flames belched from propane burners, inflating the hot-air balloon to heroic proportions and propelling it skyward. High above the grassy flats of Charleston's Hampton Park, the balloon joined a half dozen others as they bumped along on gentle currents, looking like a supersized drift of colorful soap bubbles.
"This is amazing," Theodosia cried out to Drayton as the wind blew her auburn hair into long streamers. "Almost as good as sailing or jumping a horse." Her blue eyes sparkled with merriment, and a smile lit up her face as she reveled in her first-ever balloon ride.
With her fine complexion, natural endowment of hair, and pleasing features, Theodosia Browning was the apotheosis of what Lord Byron might have described as an English beauty in one of his novels. She was, however, modest to a fault and would have blushed at the very thought.
"Is this not the coolest thing you've ever done?" Theodosia asked as blips of exhilaration filled her heart.
"No, it's terrifying," Drayton Conneley responded. He'd wedged himself into the corner of their wicker basket, teeth gritted, knuckles white, as he hung on for dear life. "When you talked me into serving afternoon tea for the Top Flight Balloon Club, I had no idea you'd twist my arm and make me go for an actual ride."
"It's good to live a little dangerously," Theodosia said. As the proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop on Church Street, she was often tapped to host weekend tea parties. This one in Hampton Park, smack-dab in the middle of Charleston, South Carolina, was no different. Except that after pouring tea and serving her trademark cream scones and crab salad tea sandwiches, Theodosia had been offered a hot-air balloon ride. Gratis. And, really, who in their right mind would turn down a wild adventure like that! Certainly not Theodosia. To an outside eye, she might appear tea-shop-demure, but she possessed the bold soul of an adrenaline junkie.
"I'm afraid the weather's beginning to shift," Drayton said. "Perhaps we should cut our ride short?" The sky, which had been pigeon egg blue just twenty minutes ago, now had a few gray clouds scudding across it.
"Wind's kicking up, too," said Rafe Meyer, their FAA certified pilot. He opened the blast valve one more time, shooting a fiery tongue high into the balloon's interior. "This will keep us at altitude along with the other balloons. But we should probably think about landing in another fifteen minutes or so. Weather conditions do look like they might deteriorate."
"Five minutes would be better," Drayton said under his breath. As Theodosia's resident tea sommelier and self-appointed arbiter of taste, he was definitely not a devotee of adventure sports. Sixty-something, genteel, with a serious addiction to tweed jackets and bow ties, Drayton's idea of high adventure was sitting in a wing chair in front of his fireplace, sipping a glass of ruby port, and reading a Joseph Conrad novel.
"Take a look at that patchwork balloon over there. You see how it's descending ever so gently?" Theodosia said. "You don't have a thing to worry about. When we hit the ground you won't even feel a bump."
But Drayton was squinting over the side of their gondola at something else. "What on earth is that whirligig thing?" he asked.
Theodosia was still reveling in her bird's-eye view and the hypnotic whoosh from the propane burner, so she wasn't exactly giving Drayton her full attention.
"What? What are you talking about?" she finally asked.
"I'm puzzled about the small, silver object that appears to be flying in our direction."
Theodosia could barely pry her eyes away from the delicious banquet of scenery and greenery, history and antiquity, that spilled out below her. Crooked, narrow streets. Elegant grande dame homes lining the Battery. The azure sweep of Charleston Harbor. The dozens of churches that poked their steeples skyward. How lucky was she to live in this amazing city?
But as Theodosia turned, she, too, caught a flash of something bright and shiny buzzing its way toward them. Her first impression was that it looked like some kind of mechanized seagull. Something you might see in a stop-action cartoon. Only, instead of dipping and diving and surfing the wind, the object was zooming right at them.
"I think it's a drone. Someone must have put up a drone," Theodosia said. She watched with growing curiosity as it headed their way, coming closer and closer. The drone swooped upward and then dipped down, doing a fancy series of aerial maneuvers. Finally, it zoomed in and hovered alongside their basket for a long moment. Strangely, the drone appeared to be making up its mind about something. Then it peeled away.
"What's the drone for? Some kind of TV news thing?" Drayton asked. "You know, 'Film at eleven'?"
"I don't think it's a commercial drone. Probably someone who's filming the balloons for fun." Theodosia's attention slowly shifted to the weather as she scanned the sky to the east, in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean. A few more clouds had rolled in, turning the horizon into a dim blot. Hopefully, there wasn't a storm brewing.
"Such a strange, buzzing thing," Drayton said, unable to unkink the knot of worry that had formed in his head. His hands gripped the side of the wicker basket even tighter. "Like some kind of giant, nasty hornet. Just having it circle around like that gave me the heebie-jeebies."
"There's really nothing to worry . . ." Theodosia began. Then she practically choked back her words as she watched the little drone lift straight up like a miniature helicopter or Harrier jet. Up, up, up it rose until it was flying level with the red-and-white balloon that hovered just ahead of them but at a slightly higher altitude.
"Now the drone has edged precipitously close to that balloon," Drayton said as he continued to gaze upward. "That can't be good."
"No, it's not." Alarmed now, Theodosia tapped their pilot on the shoulder and, when he turned, she pointed wordlessly at the drone that now hovered some forty feet above them.
The pilot glanced up and frowned, his expression telling her all she needed to know. "That shouldn't be there," he said.
"It's strange. Almost as if the drone is checking out each of the balloons," Drayton said. "Peeking in the baskets to see who the passengers are."
"Because it has a camera," Theodosia said slowly. She glanced down toward terra firma, wondering who in the crowd below them might be manipulating the drone-and why were they doing so? Was it for fun or a joke or maybe some kind of daredevil promotional film? But the balloon she was riding in was flying way too high to make out anything meaningful.
"I think the object is flying away," Drayton said. "Good riddance."
But the drone didn't fly away.
Instead, it circled back around, hovered for a few moments, revved its engine to an almost supersonic speed, and flew directly into the red-and-white balloon.
RIP. ZSSST. WHOMP!
A burst of brilliant light, bright as an atomic bomb, lit the sky.
"No!" Drayton cried out.
Theodosia threw up an arm to shield her eyes and then watched in horror as the red-and-white balloon was ripped wide open, top to bottom, like a hapless fish being gutted.
Tongues of ugly red and purple flames roiled and twisted, practically drowning out the screams of the hapless passengers. Then the gigantic balloon exploded in a hellish conflagration, sizzling and popping and wobbling for a few long seconds. Finally, the whole thing began to slowly collapse inward as the fireball deflated.
"Dear Lord, it's the Hindenburg all over again," Drayton said in a hoarse whisper.
Against the darkening sky, the burning balloon and dangling basket looked like some sort of Hollywood special effect. Then, almost in slow motion, the entire rig tumbled from the sky like a faulty rocket dropping out of orbit.
Screams rent the air-maybe from the dying passengers, certainly from the horrified observers on the ground.
Hearts in their throats, eyes unable to resist this gruesome sight, Theodosia and Drayton continued to watch the sickening spectacle unfold.
"What a catastrophe!" Drayton cried out. "Will anyone survive?"
Theodosia whispered a quick prayer. She didn't think so.
The burning balloon roared and rumbled as it continued its downward plunge, unleashing a blizzard of blistered nylon, hot metal, and exploding propane. Ash and sparks fluttered everywhere; the sound was like a blast furnace. Then, in a final ghastly incendiary burst, the balloon and its seared basket smashed down on top of Theodosia's tea table. Tongues of flame spewed out as bone china teacups were crushed. A pink-and-green teapot exploded like a bomb.
And lives were surely lost.
Almost as a climactic final act, the heavens opened up and a fierce rain hammered down.
"Hang on, this is going to be a hard landing," the pilot yelled to Theodosia and Drayton.
Grim-faced and stunned, they dropped as fast as the pilot and the laws of physics would allow. Then, like an out-of-control elevator, they slammed into the earth with a bone-jouncing, filling-rattling thud.
Even before Theodosia hopped from their half-toppled basket, she was overwhelmed by the terrible scene that awaited them. Her tea table was an enormous pile of burning debris, panicked bystanders were screaming and crying, dozens of tables and chairs had been upended, and clouds of dark, acrid smoke were spreading everywhere. And bodies. Theodosia didn't see any at the moment, but she knew there had to be bodies. No one could survive this.
"This is just unbelievable," she said to Drayton.
"Senseless," Drayton said, shaking his head. "Tragic." Gazing around, he saw that several onlookers had also been injured by falling debris.
Anger and outrage bubbled inside Theodosia. She tilted her head back to hastily scan the skies overhead, searching for the drone. But the drone, the cause of all this misery, had seemingly disappeared. Like a supersonic fighter jet on a stealth bombing mission. Or had the drone crashed and burned somewhere as well?
And where was the drone's operator? Theodosia wondered. Who on earth had been manipulating the controls and caused this accident? But as the still-flaming debris sent up an acrid stink, a tendril of fear touched her heart. Or had it been deliberate?
To make matters worse, low hanging clouds had cut visibility to a minimum, and the storm's onslaught was whipping everything into a frenzy. Trees thrashed, lines for the hot-air balloons that were hastily descending were hopelessly tangled, and a couple of metal folding chairs had turned into nasty, flying missiles.
"How many people?" a uniformed police officer shouted to Theodosia as he ran toward her. He was heading for the crash site, a radio clutched in his hand. "Did you see it happen? How many people in the explosion?"
"Two, I think," Theodosia shouted. Her jaw felt leaden, like it was wired shut. "No, wait. Maybe three people, counting the pilot."
The officer skidded to a halt next to her, touched a hand to his cheek, and muttered, "Dear Lord." Then he was on his radio, his voice rising in panic as he called for first responders. Police, ambulances, firefighters, whatever help he could muster as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, KTSC-TV, Channel 8, arrived first. The white van emblazoned with the red TV8 logo and supporting a satellite dish on top careened across the grass at an ungodly speed, rocking to a stop directly in front of Theodosia and Drayton. Dale Dickerson, one of TV8's roving reporters jumped out, looking perfectly attired and blow combed, even in the pouring rain. Dickerson nodded to himself when he recognized Theodosia and immediately stuck a microphone in her face.
"Tell us what you saw," Dickerson said.
"It was awful," Theodosia said. She could barely comprehend the magnitude of what had just happened.
"Tell us how you felt when you saw the hot-air balloon catch fire and come crashing down," Dickerson said.
Theodosia lifted a hand and pushed the microphone away. This wasn't right. People had been killed. "No," she said. "I'm not doing this. I can't."
"The station will want this footage for the five and six o'clock news," Dickerson said, as if he was offering a huge incentive.
Theodosia couldn't care less. "No. Go pester someone else."
Dickerson gave a hopeful glance in Drayton's direction, then caught the look of utter disdain on Drayton's face.
"Whatever," Dickerson said, rushing off.
Police cruisers, ambulances, and fire trucks arrived, adding to the mayhem. A young man, his face pale as a ghost, sprinted past them. He skidded to a stop a few feet away, both arms extended, and spun around full tilt on the soggy grass. Then he ran back toward them, clearly in a blind panic.
"Whoa." Theodosia reached out and snagged his jacket sleeve. "Slow down. Take it easy."
"Did you see it? Did you see Mr. Kingsley's balloon get hit?" the young man screamed at her.
"Is that who was in the balloon?" Theodosia asked. "A man named Kingsley?" She knew the police would need to know these names.
"Who else was with him?" Drayton asked.
"It was . . . it was . . ." The young man suddenly fell to his knees and dropped his head, as if he were bracing for a plane crash.
"Take a deep breath," Theodosia said. She leaned down and put a hand on the young man's shoulder. He was hyperventilating so badly she feared he might give himself a stroke.
"Yeah, okay," the young man said as he struggled to his feet. "But who's . . . who's going to tell Mrs. Kingsley?" he asked with a sorrowful moan.
Theodosia grabbed his shoulders and gave him a small shake to try to rouse him from his confused state. "Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm . . . I'm Charles Townsend."
"Do you work for Mr. Kingsley?" Drayton asked.
Townsend bobbed his head. "I'm Mr. Kingsley's private secretary."
"Oh dear," Drayton said.
"You need to pull yourself together and identify yourself to those police officers over there," Theodosia said. "Tell them who exactly was in the hot-air balloon that crashed."
But Townsend seemed rooted in place, his expression a mixture of sorrow and distress. "And what are we going to do about the flag?" he whispered.
"I don't think he's tracking all that well," Drayton said in a low voice.
"No, he's not," Theodosia said. "I think I'd better . . ." She spoke louder and more forcefully now. "You'd better come with me, Mr. Townsend." She took him gently by the arm. "We're going to get you some help."
Theodosia led Charles Townsend over to the nearest ambulance and tapped a blue-coated EMT on his shoulder. "Excuse me?"
The EMT, a young African-American man whose name tag read t. russel, turned around to face her. "Yes?"
"This young man was a witness to the crash," Theodosia said. "And he's right on the fine edge of hysteria. Could you give him some oxygen or even something stronger to help him calm down?"