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16 killed in fiery hot-air balloon crash in Texas

The balloon crash happened in Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. [Credit: Lauren Lanmon/KXAN]

The balloon crash happened in Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. [Credit: Lauren Lanmon/KXAN]

LOCKHART, Texas — A hot-air balloon carrying 16 people caught fire and crashed in Central Texas on Saturday, officials said, and the local authorities said no one had survived.

The balloon crashed in a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin, said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Initial reports from officials said the balloon had plummeted after catching fire in the air, but at least one witness said it might have struck high-tension power lines before hitting the ground and bursting into flames. The accident occurred around 7:40 a.m., Lunsford said.

In a brief telephone interview, Lunsford said that officials were on their way to the site and that the National Transportation Safety Board had been notified. The NTSB will be in charge of the investigation.

Lunsford said he did not know what had led to the crash or whether there had been a distress call.

Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law said in a statement, "It does not appear at this time that there were any survivors."

By late afternoon, investigators had yet to publicly identify any of the victims or their relations to one another. But local news reports, quoting unnamed sources, identified the pilot of the balloon as Alfred Nichols, known as "Skip." He was listed as an owner and the chief pilot of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.

His Facebook page reflected two passions: hot-air balloons and dogs. In the past two weeks, he had posted a YouTube video about a Russian balloonist who had set a speed record for traveling around the world in a balloon (11 days), and an alert about no-fee dog adoption days at the Austin Animal Center. On July 21, he posted aerial photos of a sunrise. "Another great flight in Houston," he wrote.

He had two dogs, named Elmo and Joplin, and on Thursday evening, less than two days before the crash, he posted a photo of one of them resting on him. "Goodnight to you too Elmo must you use me as your pillow?" he wrote.

By Saturday afternoon, the comment sections for that photo and the Facebook page of the balloon company were filled with condolences and remembrances.

"Skip, I shall for years to come be reminiscing about all of the awesome times we enjoyed at your Springdale Ln. Des Peres Missouri house and my Kirkwood Missouri house and tearing it up at all of the clubs my friend," Mark Grundmann wrote. "You will be missed."

Amid the outpouring were urgent requests for people who lived near Nichols to check on Elmo and Joplin. At 3:52 p.m., a woman, Wendy Bartch, posted on the company's page that the dogs were "being cared for."

Bartch, Grundmann and others who posted on Facebook and Twitter did not respond to private messages. Voice mail messages left late Saturday afternoon at two phone numbers listed for the balloon company were not returned.

Margaret Wylie, 66, who lives a quarter-mile from the crash site, said she had seen the balloon explode into a fireball after it struck the ground on a neighbor's property. She said she had been on her back porch when her dog "really started raising the roof."

"When I looked over toward my neighbor's property," Wylie said, "that's about the time I saw flames shooting out sideways and then just a fireball. At 66, that's not something I want to see again."

The crash occurred in a rural area less than an hour from Austin in a large field scorched from the summer heat. Several big power lines atop towers ran east and west at the field's southern end. A few farmhouses were visible in the distance.

Throngs of journalists arrived by late morning, but investigators had sealed off the perimeter and kept them from the spot where the balloon had fallen.

Wylie said that based on what she had heard, she believed "the balloon hit the wires, and it caused the deflation of the balloon, and then it hit the ground."

She initially heard a pop, she said, and then another that sounded like gunfire.

"I figured that was the balloon hitting the power line," she said. "By the time I looked that direction, it was on the ground, and I heard a whooshing sound and an explosion."

Wylie said the balloon was so engulfed in flames that she did not see any passengers. She immediately called 911, she said.

The red, white, blue and yellow balloon apparently separated from the basket and was stretched along the ground about a mile from the crash site.

The power lines belong to the Lower Colorado River Authority Transmission Services Corp., the Austin American-Statesman reported. A spokeswoman for the utility told the newspaper that two circuits were down after the crash, although no customers were without power.

But neither the spokeswoman nor investigators could confirm whether the power lines had been involved in the crash.

Erik Grosof, an official with the NTSB, said the crash had been classified as a major accident because of the "significant loss of life." An investigative team from the safety board was to arrive Saturday, he said, and the FBI had been asked to help look at the evidence, a normal request after major accidents.

Asked to confirm reports that 16 people had been killed, Grosof said: "Right now, we have a number of fatalities."

Sixteen deaths would make the accident one of the worst hot-air balloon crashes in history, surpassed only by a crash in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 19 people in February 2013.

In that crash the balloon was sailing over archaeological sites at dawn when a fire caused an explosion in a gas canister and the balloon plummeted more than 1,000 feet to the ground. Two people survived — the pilot and a passenger who jumped from the basket from about 30 feet. Nineteen tourists died, including the husband of the surviving passenger.

Before Saturday, the worst balloon accident in the United States occurred in August 1993 in Woody Creek, Colo., near Aspen, when a wind gust blew a balloon into a power line complex. The basket was severed and fell more than 100 feet, killing all six people aboard.

Replying to a question at a news conference, Grosof said it was his "understanding" that the balloon tour was run by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, based in New Braunfels. A person reached at its reservation service said the company offered flights in the Austin area coinciding with the sunrise. It also operates near San Antonio and in other areas. She declined to speak about the accident.

The sheriff's statement said a call had come in to local law enforcement authorities after 7:40 a.m. reporting a possible vehicle accident. When emergency responders arrived, "it was apparent that the reported fire was the basket portion of a hot-air balloon," the statement said.

Chris O'Neil, an NTSB spokesman, said investigators were expected to remain on the scene for a few days. Seven to 10 days after the field work is completed, he said, they will release a preliminary report.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement extending his condolences, calling the accident a "heartbreaking tragedy."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community," he said. "The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost."

16 killed in fiery hot-air balloon crash in Texas 07/30/16 [Last modified: Sunday, July 31, 2016 12:04am]
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