EDITOR’S NOTE: Rebkah Howard is a non-practicing attorney and sports publicist. She is the wife of former NFL star Desmond Howard and a friend of Donte Stallworth, who was injured in a hot air balloon accident March 16. This FOXSports.com buzzer exclusive is Stallworth’s account of the incident — his first comments since the accident — conveyed through Howard. The account is his alone. The hot air balloon company, Balloon Over Miami, has not responded to phone calls seeking comment.
Donte Stallworth woke up before dawn on March 16 to travel several miles south of his downtown Miami condo. A close friend, Soleil Guerrero, celebrated her birthday earlier in the week and the NFL wide receiver had planned an unusual excursion as a gift — a hot air balloon ride. It was on Soleil’s “bucket list.”
Stallworth and Guerrero met their pilot from Balloon Over Miami at the Miami Everglades Campground in the southwest quadrant of Miami-Dade County. It was a beautiful south Florida winter morning — clear skies, no precipitation, moderate temperatures — but it was unusually windy. Liftoff was delayed as a result, Stallworth said.
After moving to another departure location, per the company’s procedure stated on its website, Stallworth, Guerrero and the pilot were on their way. It was an uneventful ride that lasted nearly two hours, Stallworth said. As romantic as it may seem, the flight was long, too much so for Stallworth. He recalled thinking that he could have flown a jet to Atlanta in less time. He was ready to land.
The first hint of a problem, Stallworth said, occurred when the balloon operator radioed to his ground crew that he would not be able to make his intended landing spot. He spotted a secondary location — an open field in Homestead — and told his ground crew to assemble there and prepare for their landing, Stallworth said.
Soon, Stallworth, Guerrero, and the pilot saw power lines in the near distance. The pilot discussed this potential hazard with his ground crew, Stallworth said, and asked the football player, whom he had given an anchor-like device to hold, to throw it over the basket upon his command, which he would give after they cleared the power lines.
They never cleared the power lines.
The next thing Stallworth remembered is feeling strong, jarring, painful currents of electricity flowing through his body. He said he felt death approaching, later adding, “In that moment, I thought my eyes would close and I’d never wake up again.”
Days later, when former New England Patriots teammate Wes Welker and his wife Anna paid a visit, Stallworth tried to describe the pain of electrical shock in terms Welker could relate to: “Imagine the hardest hit you’ve ever taken and multiply that by 1,000.”
Stallworth also felt intense burning on his arm, lower back and buttocks. Guerrero told him that he had been on fire — as had she. Stallworth described seeing Guerrero in this state as “the most frightening part of the entire ordeal.”
By the time the basket hit the ground with its balloon still entangled in the electrical wires above, Stallworth said he snapped out of his shock. He tried to get Guerrero to her feet, but she cried that she couldn’t feel her legs — a condition that turned out to be temporary. Stallworth said he managed to hold his friend in a standing position while he kept her head up to prevent her from looking down at her injuries. He repeatedly urged her to focus on her breathing. The jeans she wore were in tatters — as if they had been put through a paper shredder. The pilot told the ground crew to call 911 and paramedics arrived in about 10 to 12 minutes. It felt like an eternity to Guerrero, who said she was crying out in pain and shock.
Both suffered severe burns, though they were not life- or career-threatening. Stallworth took the brunt of his injuries on his backside.
While waiting for a medevac, Stallworth said, the pair was put on stretchers, administered pain meds intravenously, placed in the back of separate emergency vehicles and were later transported to a trauma center via helicopter. The balloon operator escaped injury.
Stallworth remembered suddenly chuckling out loud at the scene. The paramedics seemed to him to be taken aback by the unusual response.
“I’ve played professional football for 10 years and I’ve never been carted off the football field,” he said he told them. “Now, after a couple hours in a hot air balloon, I’m getting airlifted off a farm.”
It was not the way he expected to end his day after tweeting “Buenos dias mundo” (“Good day world”) early on March 16 while waiting for the wind to settle down.
Stallworth, a free agent, expected to be ready to resume workouts within a month and hoped to catch on with a new NFL team for the upcoming season.
Guerrero, meanwhile, left the hospital last week and says she is undergoing physical therapy.
Rebkah Howard is on Twitter at @pink_funk and blogs at whatthefunkblog.com.