No survivors in hot air balloon crash near Lockhart; 16 on board

CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A hot air balloon crash near Lockhart Saturday morning may be the deadliest incident of its kind in U.S. history. Sixteen people were on board. Authorities say there are no survivors.

Federal investigators say the balloon caught fire in flight, crashing around  7:40 a.m. in a field west of Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. Major power transmission lines, owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority, are in the immediate area of the crash site. An LCRA spokesperson said two circuits tripped in the area Saturday morning, but could not confirm the lines were a factor in the crash.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesperson Erik Grosof said the agency is conducting a significant investigation into this crash involving the Heart of Texas Balloon Company, owned by Skip Nichols. Victims’ specialists and weather experts are expected to arrive Saturday night.

A neighbor who saw the aftermath said hot air balloons are common in the area. “I had just stepped outside on the back porch… I heard one pop before I stepped out the door, then I heard another pop. And I’m looking around to see who’s shooting — because it sounded like a gun going off — and then I looked off over there and the next thing I knew you saw a big fireball go up,” Margaret Wylie said. “I called 911 and I waited until I saw the fire department go by.”

The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office says 911 callers initially reported a vehicle crash near the intersection of Jolly Road and Cistern Road, just off of State Highway 142, but when they arrived they determined it was the basket portion of the hot air balloon.

The FBI Evidence Response Team from San Antonio was asked by the NTSB to help at the scene of the crash, a normal practice for incidents of this size.

Gov. Greg Abbott said his thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community. “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,” he said.

Texas State Representative and airplane pilot John Cyrier lives just four miles south of the scene. He says he’s seen the balloon many times fly over the area. “I’ve taken photos of it, it’s just hard for me to believe right now that something so beautiful and so peaceful could end so tragic,” said Cyrier.

Others living in the area say hot air balloons fly over frequently. Alejandro Janez says he has always wanted to take flight in one of the balloons that fly over his home. “You just look at them from far away and you just think ‘wow they are having such a good time, really having fun!’” said Janez. However, after seeing the aftermath of the crash, Janez says he may think twice. “It’s really just unimaginable.”

Another hot air balloon pilot told KXAN he cancelled three launches in the same area Saturday morning. He said high winds and a low cloud ceiling kept him from flying.

From 2002-2012, data from the NTSB shows 16 people died in hot air balloon crashes in the United States. The most recent deadly Texas balloon crash was in Mesquite, Texas in August 1992. A crash in Longview in July 2015 was the most recent incident in the state. The pilot, trying to avoid power lines, crash landed, breaking his hip and ankle. No one died.

The company

An NTSB investigator says he believes the company in charge of the balloon is Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Multiple online listings, including the Better Business Bureau, show Skip Nichols as the owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. According to a former passenger, Nichols’ Facebook page,  and other online sources, Skip Nichols was also a pilot for the company. However, authorities have not yet said whether Nichols was on the deadly trip Saturday.
Neighbors say Nichols lived at a home just outside Kyle, Texas. He was not at the house when KXAN arrived in the neighborhood. Neighbors told KXAN the business typically keeps a truck in the community with equipment for the balloon rides.

The Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides Website states the flights usually take about an hour and the company takes off with two hours of fuel plus a 30-minute reserve of fuel. The crew uses about 60 different launch locations, according to the site. It also states there is a chase crew on the ground following the balloon and using radios to stay in contact the pilot in the air.

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