The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas and killed all 16 people aboard had been arrested in Missouri for driving while intoxicated in 2000, police said, and the Better Business Bureau there had warned consumers about doing business with him after complaints about his balloon touring company.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, was identified as the pilot by his friend and roommate Alan Lirette, who said that Nichols was a good pilot.
“That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said, speaking to the AP from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle, Texas. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press and I want a positive image there too.”
Federal investigators said the balloon, which was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture in Central Texas early Saturday morning. One witness who lives a quarter-mile from the site, Margaret Wylie, said she heard popping sounds and saw what looked “like a fireball going up”.
Authorities have not publicly named Nichols or the victims of the crash. They said identification of the bodies could be a long process.
There were reports of foggy weather in the area around the time of the flight. At least two of the passengers, Matt Rowan and his wife Sunday Rowan, posted photos on social media of the preparations, the early morning sunrise and themselves in the basket of the balloon a short time before the crash.
Ground crew members told investigators that they launched about 20 minutes after the expected 6:45am time. The balloon travelled about 8 miles from take off to crash, and the basket was found about three-quarters of a mile from the balloon itself.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators recovered 14 personal electronic devices, including cellphones, an iPad and three cameras from the crash site, which will be sent to a lab in Washington for analysis.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said the immediate focus of the investigation would be gathering witness testimony, starting with the ground crew on Monday.
“They’ve been busy trying to collect the maintenance records for us,” Sumwalt said of the ground crew, adding that the records may be in Houston.
Sumwalt said the pilot had a commercial certificate to fly a hot air balloon and those records are being gathered from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Asked if the pilot had any criminal history, Sumwalt said it was too early in the investigation to know.
But a Missouri police officer told The Associated Press that Nichols was arrested there in 2000 on a felony driving while intoxicated charge and pleaded guilty to misdemeanour DWI in 2002.
The officer said that based on photographs, he is confident the man arrested in Missouri is the same man who piloted the Texas balloon. Nichols had lived in Missouri before moving to Texas. He was known as “Skip” in both places and owned a hot air balloon touring company in St. Louis County at the time, said the officer, who spoke to the AP on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorised to comment publicly.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about doing business with Nichols, the third time since 2000 that Nichols had gotten an unsatisfactory record for not responding to complaints. The paper quoted the BBB as saying Nichols was on probation in Missouri for distribution, delivery or manufacturing a controlled substance and that when asked to respond, Nichols said, “I prefer to make no comment on that.”