Balloon passenger injured when bullet grazes her arm

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; A woman suffered minor injuries after being shot while in a balloon over Vidalia near the Mississippi River in the final day of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

Becky Lassalle of Metairie, La., was treated by on-site medical crews after a bullet grazed her left arm during Sunday morning’s liftoff shortly after 7:30 a.m. The bullet did minor damage to her arm that didn’t require a trip to the hospital, but she and her husband, Paul, are thankful nothing else happened.

&uot;I was flying the balloon with my husband, and we heard a shot,&uot; Becky Lassalle said following Sunday afternoon’s awards presentation. &uot;Immediately I felt my arm, and I knew I had been shot. When I looked at my arm, there was no blood or anything. I got down in the basket and prayed for my husband to be protected. He landed the balloon safely and was OK.&uot;

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The shot was believed to be only one, and the Lassalles &045; balloon pilots for 10 years and their seventh year in the race &045; believe it was unintentional. They had their balloon up 240 feet in the air about a quarter of a mile away from the levee when they heard a shot fired.

Becky Lassalle ducked down in the basket, but Paul said he couldn’t do the same since he was trying to land the balloon as quickly as possible.

&uot;It stung a lot, but they took me out to the emergency area and took my vital signs,&uot; Becky Lassalle said. &uot;But I didn’t have to go to the hospital. It’s a miracle of God he protected me and protected us. You hear these things and wonder how many shots will come after the first one. That was my concern. But God came through, and we’ll be back.&uot;

The couple believes the shot was accidental and came from hunters in the area, especially since the start of squirrel season recently. Neither heard another shot fired after the first one, leading them to believe it was accidental.

&uot;I heard the shot, and the next thing she hollered was she was hit,&uot; Paul Lassalle said. &uot;I asked her to let me see, and I didn’t see any blood. So I landed on the levee.&uot;

Although the couple believes it was accidental, race officials didn’t hesitate to contact law enforcement agencies to investigate. Officials contacted Vidalia police and fire departments and the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office along with Louisiana State Police and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Kathleen Stevens said Sunday officials are investigating &uot;every aspect of the incident.&uot;

Shooting an aircraft while it’s in flight is a federal offense, and it landed one Baton Rouge area man in jail after he shot a balloon while in flight during the old Baton Rouge balloon races years ago, Paul Lassalle said.

&uot;She was strong and grateful she wasn’t injured any worse,&uot; pilot chairperson Debbie Guido said. &uot;It (a shooting) is very rare. Shooting at any aircraft &045; balloon or a jet &045; is a very serious offense.&uot;