Monday, February 19, 2018
News Roundup

16 killed in fiery hot-air balloon crash in Texas

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."

Comments
Epilogue: Tourism community remembers Paradise founder Cedar Hames

Epilogue: Tourism community remembers Paradise founder Cedar Hames

When Cedar Hames spoke, you listened.He was a natural storyteller, always dressed sharp to match his wit and natural elegance. He grew a two-person business in St. Petersburg into a leading tourism, advertising and marketing agency over an esteemed 3...
Updated: 13 minutes ago
Video: Swiss skier Fabian Bosch explains his viral escalator stunt

Video: Swiss skier Fabian Bosch explains his viral escalator stunt

Last week, a video went viral that showed Swiss freestyle skier Fabian Bosch dangling while hanging onto an escalator, arm outstretched, as a teammate rode alongside him."We had to wait until our apartment was ready, so we had to kill time, we got re...
Updated: 18 minutes ago
Wardrobe issues cause Olympic stress for French skaters

Wardrobe issues cause Olympic stress for French skaters

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The first notes of Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You" had just played when Gabriella Papadakis suddenly became aware that people were about to see a whole lot more of her shape than she had planned. The French ice dancer’s glitterin...
Updated: 21 minutes ago
Video: Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz in brief court hearing

Video: Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz in brief court hearing

PARKLAND — Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz has appeared in court for a procedural hearing. Cruz said nothing at Monday’s hearing in Broward County Circuit Court, the first he attended in person and not via teleconference from jail. He ke...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Teachers say Florida shooter’s problems started in middle school, and the system tried to help him

Teachers say Florida shooter’s problems started in middle school, and the system tried to help him

PARKLAND, Fla. — The real problems started at least as early as middle school and quickly intensified. There were the vocal outbursts, disturbing drawings of stick figures with guns, constant disciplinary issues. There were threatening statements wri...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Girl, 12, sister of murder victim, reported missing in Manatee County

Girl, 12, sister of murder victim, reported missing in Manatee County

Seven months ago, Jalyssa Shannon’s older sister Janessa went missing, sparking a frantic search that ended with the discovery of the 13-year-old’s body in a Hillsborough County nature preserve and, later, the arrest of the girls’ father in her murde...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Sting nets arrests of more than 20 ‘brazen’ unlicensed contractors in Pinellas

Sting nets arrests of more than 20 ‘brazen’ unlicensed contractors in Pinellas

DUNEDIN –– The unlicensed contractors answered calls to perform electrical, plumbing and other types of work at a home since Saturday. But the workers had no idea that Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies posed as homeowners.Since Saturday, deputies ar...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Ruth: Douglas High students, expect the expected in protesting gun violence in Tallahassee

It is noteworthy that the 100 or so students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who will arrive in Tallahassee Wednesday to plead with the Florida Legislature to introduce some sanity into our gun laws are now just a bit older than the 20 firs...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Tuesday’s letters: Making politics personal is one way toward reasonable gun control

The Parkland shootingMake gun politics personalAs an educator of 32 years, it encourages me to see our young people engaged after the horror at Stoneman Douglas High School. The tragedy at Parkland has awakened the sleeping giant that is the millenni...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Report: Winn-Dixie parent company could close 200 stores

Report: Winn-Dixie parent company could close 200 stores

Bi-Lo LLC, a subsidiary of the same Jacksonville company that owns Winn-Dixie, could file for bankruptcy as soon as next month, according to a Bloomberg report.Parent company Southeastern Grocer is planning to shut down nearly 200 stores either befor...
Updated: 1 hour ago