Key witness in Lockhart balloon crash killed in motorcycle accident

7:56 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 Local
TAMIR KALIFA
Authorities investigate debris from the hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people on July 30 near Lockhart. Alan Thomas Lirette, 60, headed up the ground crew for Heart of Texas Balloon Rides and led the frantic search for the missing balloon after the crew lost contact with it.

A key witness in the federal government’s investigation into the deadly hot air balloon crash near Lockhart died last week after his motorcycle veered off of FM 1626 and struck a sign post in southern Travis County.

Alan Thomas Lirette, 60, headed up the ground crew for Heart of Texas Balloon Rides and led the frantic search for the missing balloon after he lost contact with pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols on the morning of July 30. Nichols and 15 paying passengers died when the balloon struck power lines near Maxwell in the deadliest balloon crash in modern U.S. history.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Lirette was driving eastbound at 5:25 a.m. Dec. 27 when he left the road and struck a sign post, sending his motorcycle into the air and throwing him off of it. The Travis County medical examiner’s office ruled Lirette’s death an accident. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Lirette, who was known as “Bubba,” was a free spirit, said his mother, Tommi Dolores Hooban of Buda: “He loved his life, and he lived it to the full extent. He always lived his life on the edge.”

Hooban said her son didn’t have a long history of ballooning, but he was very excited when he met Nichols about three years ago and joined his chase crew, which follows hot air balloons on the ground to their landing sites.

Hooban said that Lirette, who also worked in construction, cherished his association with Nichols and eventually rented a room at his house. Lirette, she said, was taking the balloon crash “very, very, very hard. He was very close to Skip.”

Lirette provided the National Transportation and Safety Board’s investigators with a lengthy statement in August, giving the agency its most detailed look at the events leading up to the fatal balloon flight.

Lirette’s death won’t affect the safety board’s investigation into the accident, which is expected to wrap up in the coming months, agency spokesman Eric Weiss said. Officials are expected to submit a final report that includes the probable cause of the accident and safety recommendations later this year.

Lirette, a Louisiana native who previously lived in Massachusetts and Florida, told investigators that he took care of the house where he lived with Nichols in Kyle, and had worked with Nichols for the last three years.

He helped on preparations for that morning’s flight, setting up the balloon, conducting safety checks and making sure champagne and orange juice were in the van for the passengers, according to his interview with the safety board. He told investigators he was aware that “Skip had a ‘colorful’ past, but was a good man that had turned things around.”

At a Dec. 9 investigatory hearing in Washington, D.C., officials revealed that Nichols — a recovering alcoholic with a long history of drunken driving convictions that made him ineligible for a Texas driver’s license — had a bevy of powerful prescription drugs in his system, including oxycodone, Valium and muscle relaxants, that could have led to the loss of his pilot’s license had federal aviation officials known of them.

Officials also questioned Nichols’ decision to fly despite a cloudy forecast that persuaded several other Central Texas balloon operators to cancel their flights.

Lirette told investigators that conditions at the time of the launch were “beautiful” and there was “no indication of any problems.” The pole he and Nichols used to gauge conditions at the Fentress Airpark was clear of fog. As Lirette set up the balloon, he noticed a shift in the wind, but that “did not concern him,” according to the investigative report.

Lirette said he lost visual contact with the balloon about 15 minutes after the launch when the balloon disappeared into fog near the Texas 130 toll road. After receiving a final message from Nichols at 7:26 a.m., Lirette said he was unable to reach the pilot through voicemail or a messaging app. After calling passengers’ cellphones, he said he and his crew entered “panic mode” and started driving towards San Marcos, where they came across the crash site in a field with several cars next to it.

In the hours after the crash, Lirette, whose criminal record included theft and burglary convictions in Florida and drunken driving and arson convictions in Texas, spoke with several media outlets before declining to speak further. The “only thing I want to talk about is that (Nichols) is a great pilot,” Lirette told The Associated Press. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there too.”

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