NTSB officials examine the balloon's envelope, 31 July 2016; Credit: NTSB

16 People Die in Second-Deadliest Hot-Air Balloon Crash

LOCKHART, TEXAS –A hot-air balloon carrying 16 people struck power lines and crashed in a pasture near Lockhart, in central Texas, around 7:40 a.m. local time (8:40 a.m. ET), according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  A witness who lives near the site said she heard a loud pop and noticed a fireball.

NTSB officials examine the balloon's envelope, 31 July 2016; Credit: NTSB
NTSB officials examine the balloon’s envelope, 31 July 2016
Credit: NTSB

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said that it’s likely a fire broke out on the balloon, but whether this happened before or after it hit the electrical wires remains to be seen. The balloon’s envelope and basket were found about three-quarters of a mile apart, and the victims’ bodies were found by the basket, Sumwalt added. The balloon had flown about 8 miles before plummeting to the pasture below, he said.

Margaret Wylie, a local resident told CNN affiliate TWC, “First I heard a whoosh and then a big ball of fire (went) up. I’d say it got as high up as those lower electric lines.” According to the Sheriff’s office, local authorities received a 911 call at 7:44 a.m. (8:44 a.m. ET), and the caller reported a possible vehicle accident. When law enforcement officers reached the scene they found the fire was the basket portion of the hot-air balloon.

The balloon’s pilot Skip Nichols who owned the company Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides was also killed in the crash. Soon after the disaster, his company recorded this phone message: “Following the tragic loss of our beloved owner and chief pilot Skip and our passengers this morning it is necessary to cancel all flights for the foreseeable future. Please understand that we are dealing with all the immediate circumstances of this tragedy,” the recording said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who passed away with Skip.”

On Saturday, 30th July 2016, the takeoff was delayed by 20 minutes and it was cloudy during takeoff, said Sumwalt, but he was not certain if weather was a factor in the incident.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the FBI were investigating the crash site, which was cordoned off like a crime scene to collect evidence. Investigators have found 14 recording devices by the victims’ bodies. They will be using the cell phones, cameras, and an iPad for any clues leading to what might have happened. The NTSB is also requesting people to turn over any videos or pictures taken before the crash.

Due to the weather, investigators were delayed in getting to the site and physical evidence of the wreckage could get tarnished in another day or so, said Sumalt.

NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt in a media briefing regarding the hot-air balloon crash in Texas Credit: NTSB; 31 Jul 2016
NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt in a media briefing regarding the hot-air balloon crash in Texas
Credit: NTSB; 31 Jul 2016

“We’re looking at operation of balloon, pilot, and company that operated the balloon,” Sumwalt said, identifying the operating company as Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.

He said the balloon pilot Skip Nichols was certified to fly hot air balloons.  NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neill said hot-air balloons, depending on their sizes, were allowed a maximum of 16 passengers, under federal regulations.

According to the NTSB, a similar type of balloon had been involved in at least one other accident in recent years.

Since 2011, the NTSB has recorded 60 hot-air balloon accidents, and six of them were fatal. Saturday’s crash is the worst in U.S. ballooning history.

Some victims’ identities have already been confirmed by their family members. Among those on the doomed flight were 34-year-old Matt Rowan and Sunday Rowan who got married in February 2016.

Matt Rowan was doing research which he believed would benefit soldiers, service members, and others who had been injured by burns. On Friday night, Matt Rowan texted a friend that he’d be late to a volleyball tournament because he was going on a hot-air balloon ride. From the balloon, he sent a photo to his teammates—his last text.

The FAA and NTSB have different viewpoints on safety regulations for hot-air balloons. The NTSB can only recommend safety procedures but the FAA implements and enforces the regulations. In April 2014, the NTSB warned the FAA about “the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident,” and urged the FAA to implement stricter ballooning regulations. The FAA, however, rejected the recommendations, saying ballooning risks were low. The FAA’s response was “unacceptable” to NTSB.

The following month, in May 2014, a hot-air balloon collided with a power line, burst in mid-air, and crashed near Doswell, Virginia, claiming three victims.

Owing to the “significant loss of life,” Saturday’s crash that killed 16 people is classified as a major accident, said Erik Grosof, an NTSB official. Chris O’Neil said 13 investigators were investigating the accident, and a preliminary report would be released within 10 days. It would take more than a year for a conclusive report.

The Texas balloon disaster is the second worst hot-air balloon crashes in history; the deadliest one took place in the ancient city Luxor, in Egypt, when 19 people died in the crash in February 2013. There were two survivors— the pilot and a woman passenger—who jumped from 30 feet, during the balloon’s terrifying plunge from 10,000 feet. In Luxor, the balloon was flying over an archaeological area at dawn when a gas canister exploded due to a fire.

In the United States, another major ballooning accident was in Woody Creek, Colorado, in August 1993. When a strong wind pushed the balloon into a power line grid, the gondola detached and fell more than 100 feet killing all six people.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Governor Greg Abbott offered their condolences. Gov. Greg described 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.”

Senator Cruz said this in a statement: “As always, Texans are strong in the face of adversity, and we all stand together in support of the families and entire Lockhart community as they respond to and begin to heal from this terrible incident.”

 

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