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Hot air balloon safety concerns raised by TSB Chair months before fatal accident

MONTREAL – As a young man’s family makes funeral preparations for their beloved son, some are wondering whether there should be more safety regulation and training for balloon pilots.

A 27-year-old firefighter and father of two, Maxime Trepanier grew up around hot air balloons. As a toddler, he had already seen Quebec from the basket of a balloon with his father, Normand Trepanier, who is also an avid balloonist.

Early Sunday morning, Maxime had already landed his balloon near Mont-St-Gregoire when he decided to help another pilot who was experiencing difficulties repositioning a balloon.

Apparently the two were trying to move the balloon to its proper landing spot when it began to lift up into the air.

READ MORE: Deadly hot air balloon accident at International Hot Air Balloon Festival

Quebec provincial police said that for an as yet unconfirmed reason, Trepanier did not let go of the cable as the balloon ascended.

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“He did not let it go and after a certain height, he fell,” said Surete du Quebec spokesperson Joyce Kemp.

Some reports suggest he was as high as 150 metres, although the height has not been officially confirmed by investigators.

Maxime was seriously injured by the fall and he was transferred to hospital, where he was pronounced dead several hours later.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) sent a team of investigators to the site of the hot air balloon accident on Sunday.

Chris Krepski, a spokesperson for the agency, said that all possible causes were being investigated. He noted that although the winds were light on the ground, they were stronger at that altitude.

WATCH: Hot air balloon death

The incident comes just months after TSB Chair Wendy Tadros published an article outlining her concerns about hot-air-balloon safety regulations.

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Tadros noted that according to Transport Canada, there are almost 500 balloons registered nationwide but these are not regulated in the same way as other aircraft.

“[They are] assigned a much lower priority – so low, in fact, that a large balloon that carries paying passengers is unlikely to ever receive a government safety inspection,” she wrote.

She also was critical of the fact while balloon operators must have a government-issued Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC), these never expire. So a licence issued in the past year is just as valid as one from the 70s.

“Worse still, balloon companies aren’t required to develop operations manuals and maintenance control manuals – basic steps that were long ago mandated as standard for other types of commercial aircraft.”

Although it is quite uncommon for people to be injured in hot air balloon accidents, ballooning still carries a level of risk, as several incidents in Canada in recent years attest to.

In August 2007, a balloon carrying 13 people caught fire and came crashing down in Surrey, B.C., killing a mother and daughter and leaving several others badly injured.

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In the same month, not far from Winnipeg, a balloon carrying 11 passengers landed badly, leaving three seriously injured after a fuel line caught on fire.

Just a few months ago in Gatineau, Que., four aeronauts were stranded in remote section of Gatineau Park after their hot air balloon was forced to land due to high winds.

It’s exactly these sorts of incidents that are a cause for concern for Tadros.

“The regulatory process, however, can take years – and in the meantime, our recommendations remain unimplemented,” her report concluded.

“Simply put, not enough has been done.”

Whether stricter safety regulations would have saved the life of the young father remains to be seen but it’s the last thing on the minds of those gathered to mourn his death.

Balloon flights were suspended on Sunday night as friends, family and colleagues lit up their balloons in an informal tribute to Trepanier.

WATCH: A touching hommage to Maxime on YouTube

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