Sixteen people in a hot air balloon that crashed in Central Texas on Saturday were killed, authorities confirmed on Sunday, saying it will take “a long process” to identify the victims of the worst such disaster in US history.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board did not identify the company operating the balloon or its pilot involved in Saturday’s crash, two officials familiar with the investigation said it was run by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk publicly.
The pilot was Skip Nichols, 49, according to Alan Lirette, who identified Nichols as his boss, best friend and roommate. Lirette said he helped launch the balloon, which was carrying a total of 16 people, none of them children.
The balloon fell in a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. The crash site was near a row of high-tension power lines, and aerial photos showed an area of scorched land underneath. One witness described seeing a “fireball” near the power lines.
Caldwell County sheriff Daniel Law and the Texas department of public safety said it will be “a long process” to identify the 16 victims.
Speaking to the AP from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle, Lirette would not answer specific questions about the balloon’s launch or its crash.
“That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said of Nichols, who also owned Missouri-based Air Balloon Sports LLC. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press and I want a positive image there too.”
Wendy Bartch, a former girlfriend of Nichols, told the Austin American-Statesman that he was “a good pilot and loved people,” was cautious about keeping passengers safe, and had been involved with hot air balloons for about two decades.
Nichols’ Facebook page identifies himself as the chief pilot of Heart of Texas. The operation does not appear to be registered with the state of Texas.
Calls to Heart of Texas operations manager Sarah Nichols, 72, rang unanswered, and a woman in Missouri believed to be the pilot’s sister did not return calls seeking comment.
Heart of Texas’ website said it offers rides in the San Antonio, Houston and Austin areas. The company’s Facebook page has photos of a hot air balloon flying with a smiley face with sunglasses on it, people waving from a large basket on the ground, and group selfies taken while aloft.
NTSB investigators will look at “three things — human, machine and environment,” said board member Robert Sumwalt. The investigation will include the balloon’s maintenance history and the weather at the time of the crash.
They also will look into whether the operator filed a passenger manifest before taking off, Sumwalt said. Lirette said that several people on board seemed related, because “a lot of last names were the same,” but he didn’t give specifics. Authorities have not released the passengers’ names.
The NTSB is interested in any cellphone video of the flight from witnesses, and investigators will look for devices in the wreckage that might contain video shot by passengers.
“When balloons go out on these flights, they have a chase couple of cars to go pick up the riders after they’ve landed in a field somewhere. We think there may be some chase footage from those cars,” Sumwalt said.
Margaret Wylie, who lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site, told the AP she was letting her dog out Saturday morning when she heard a “pop, pop, pop.”
“I looked around and it was like a fireball going up,” she said, noting that the flames were almost high enough to reach the power lines.
Warning about potential high-fatality accidents, safety investigators recommended two years ago that the Federal Aviation Administration impose greater oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators, government documents show. The FAA rejected those recommendations, and the NTSB classified the FAA’s response to the two balloon safety recommendations as “open-unacceptable,” which means the safety board was not satisfied with the FAA’s response.
FAA spokesperson Lynn Lunsford said it’s difficult to say whether the Texas crash will cause the agency to reconsider NTSB’s recommendations “until we’ve had a chance to gather and examine the evidence in this particular case.”
Saturday’s crash was one of the worst hot air balloon accidents on record. In 2013, 19 people were killed and two were injured when a balloon caught fire over Luxor, Egypt, and plunged 1,000 feet.