Chuck Walz fought back fear as he struggled to stabilize his damaged hot air balloon. He believed he'd regained stability and managed to ease it down from about 13,600 to 10,000 feet. Then the balloon came completely apart.
Falling at nearly 100 mph in the balloon's basket, Walz radioed a friend on the ground with a final message: Tell his wife and son he loved them. He felt his fear subside, prayed, retreated to the corner of his basket and waited to die.
Dozens of Americans die every year in parachuting accidents, according to the website dropzone.com. And since 2005, according to a search of National Transportation Safety Board records, there have been 10 fatalities in eight balloon accidents in the United States.
But Walz isn't one of them -- even though he fell nearly two miles from the sky. He was 52 at the time, taking part in the Great Southeast Balloon Fest in Anderson, South Carolina, on Aug. 31, 2008.
Walz, from Munith, Michigan, is among the small group of people around the world who have fallen from mountains, skyscrapers or even greater heights, spent a minute or more facing almost-certain death ... and lived to tell the tale.
Such cases seem rare. Perhaps a couple receive media attention each year and many of those are detailed on a website called The Free Fall Research Page.
The website lists two such cases already this year -- a father and daughter who fell 13 stories in an apartment building during the Chilean earthquake on Feb. 27; and Lareece Butler, 26, of South Africa, who fell approximately 3,000 feet in a March 6 skydiving accident.
"I tried opening the emergency chute, but it did not open," she The Herald of South Africa. "I said, 'God save me, please. I have a son,' and after that I do not remember anything. I remember waking up" in the hospital.
On the other hand, Walz told ABCNews.com in a series of e-mails, "I remember everything that happened to me from the very beginning of my experience that beautiful Sunday morning."
The details of Walz's experience match elements reported by others who have fallen great distances -- including frenzied efforts to regain control, feelings of fear, resignation and reflection, and sometimes a goodbye message to loved ones.
"I called my buddy on the ground via two-way radio (who was in Anderson helping out) and told him that I was in trouble and I figured I could not get out of this one. I then paused for a moment or two, looked around," Walz wrote via e-mail. "Then called him back and told him to tell my wife and son that I will miss them and that I loved them. I said I love all you guys, unkeyed the mike, stood in the corner of the basket, said a prayer or two, then relaxed because I was pretty sure the end was near."
During the last moments of his fall, he could hear sirens of rescue workers rushing in below. He worried he might hit a house, power lines, a road, a parking lot -- in any event, something hard or deadly. Yet he felt his fear subsiding.
"I relaxed," he said, "because I knew I had no control of what was about to happen to me and it would not do any good to fight it."
As it turned out, Walz's fall was broken by a small tree, which snagged his balloon and pitched him out of his basket, leaving him hospitalized with a broken pelvis and other injuries.