ROME — An Italian fishing boat on Monday pulled the remains of two American balloonists from the Adriatic Sea, ending a two-month hunt for the pair's bodies in one of ballooning's darkest chapters.
The boat hauled in the balloon gondola with the bodies of the Americans still inside while fishing 11 miles (17 kilometers) north of Vieste before dawn, said Cmdr. Guido Limongelli of the Vieste port. Viete is on Italy's eastern Adriatic coast in the southern Puglia region, which makes up the "heel" of boot-shaped Italy.
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. 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.
As soon as the fishing boat discovered what was in its nets it alerted port officials in Vieste, 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.
The disappearance of the champion balloonists had 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 was in 1981 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 race.
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 said he expected it would be raised. He 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.
Associated Press writers Bob Seavey in Phoenix and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.