Couple recounts drama of crash-landing hot-air balloon after losing pilot

(ABC News)- Tom and Shawna Stenton, of Louisville, Kentucky, were planning to enjoy a relaxing sightseeing tour of Las Vegas last week — but the day turned into a nightmare when their hot-air balloon crash-landed in the desert, ejecting the pilot and leaving them to fend for themselves.

“It felt like a car crash. It did not feel like a hard landing … it felt like a bad car crash,” Shawna Stenton told “Good Morning America” in an interview airing Thursday. “We’re just fortunate we made it out alive. That’s what I keep going back to every time I start to panic. My heart starts pounding and I think, ‘You’re alive and that’s all that matters.’ And then that calms me.”

Sitting side-by-side in wheelchairs, the Stentons said they’re still recovering from the Sept. 12 hot-air balloon crash that injured several others and left one passenger in critical condition.

Several passengers and the pilot were thrown from the gondola and others were dragged for more than a half mile, according to the FAA.

“When we popped up, it was, ‘Where is everybody? Where’s the pilot?’ And then panic. ‘Where’s the pilot?'” Shawna Stenton said.

Thankfully, her husband was able to think quickly as the balloon drifted back into the air after hitting the ground and bouncing around for what seemed like forever, the couple said.

“Tom’s a hero. He won’t tell people, but I mean, he landed that balloon. We ended up on the ground and I don’t know where we would have been,” Shawna Stenton said.

Tom Stenton said he’s still not sure of how he manged to pull it off, but he said he’s glad that he paid attention to the pilot as he operated the balloon.

“There was a red rope that opens up the canopy at the top of the balloon and lets the hot air out. And you have, like, 15 seconds from when you pull that till it starts to actually drop. So I just jerked it,” he said. “We got a little bit closer to the ground and I jerked it again, and that’s when we just made contact.”

Shawna Stenton sustained a broken ankle and femur in the crash, as well as a punctured lung. Her husband has multiple broken bones in his right hand and blood clots in his legs.

The FAA is still investigating the cause of the crash.

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