LEWISTON — Just as the sun rose over the city Saturday, yards of rip-stop nylon slowly billowed into the air as crews helped to inflate 24 hot air balloons.

The vibrant colors towered over the crowd of thousands gathered to watch the first launch of the day at the 19th annual Great Falls Balloon Festival. Excited passengers boarded the wicker and rattan baskets below.

Between the crowd commenting “wow” and “that’s amazing,” the whoosh of flames ignited by propane could be heard as one by one the balloons lifted into the sky.

“I think they look pretty awesome,” said 11-year-old Bailey Carrillo.

Bailey was watching the launch with her sister Madison, 9, brothers Aidan , 6, and Ethan, 2, all of Merrimack, N.H.

“They went really high,” Madison said, tilting her head back to see balloons dotting the partially cloudy sky.

Their mother Kristin Carrillo said they come to the festival every year while visiting family nearby. While they’ve watched the balloons take off, she said they’ve never taken a ride.

“I don’t think I’d want to,” she said. “It’s too high.”

As for her daughters, Madison said she would give it a try.

More people will take to the skies today with launches at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. weather permitting. Balloon Ride Coordinator Mickey Reeder explained the launches are scheduled for early morning and evening for optimal winds and weather, though Friday night’s launch was canceled due to storms that rolled through.

The festival, which started Friday and ends tonight, draws more than 100,000 people to Lewiston and Auburn, Reeder said. For many local nonprofit organizations who have booths at the festival, it has become a major fundraiser, she said.

For others, it’s an exciting adventure.

Kerri Tuck of Bangor and Dave Damon of Lewiston were scheduled for a ride Friday evening, but because of the storms they rescheduled for Saturday morning. In the early dawn hours, they waited anxiously.

“She’s a little nervous about it, but I’m excited,” Damon said.

He grew up in the area, and said, “I’m excited about seeing Lewiston and Auburn from the sky.”

Kathie Nee, Debbie Santagati and Cindy Bernard were also waiting for their pilot.

“I’m kind of nervous,” admitted Santagati of Dorchester, Mass. “That’s why I brought this.”

She held out a small pouch labeled “First Aid Kit for Hot Air Balloon Ride” and her group of friends laughed.

“I’m really so excited to be going up today,” she said.

Just an hour later as she boarded the wicker basket under an inflated multi-colored striped balloon, Santagati smiled. As she and her friends sailed off over the Androscoggin River, they waved to the crowd below.

Within half an hour, most of the balloons were out of sight as they drifted in the wind. Reeder said there are chase crews who follow the balloons and pick passengers up wherever they land.

“We celebrate every safe landing with champagne,” Reeder said, carrying on the tradition of early French aeronauts. “So we always have champagne because we always have safe landings.”


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