16 killed in hot air balloon crash near Lockhart

A fiery hot air balloon crash killed 16 people west of Lockhart on Saturday, marking one of the most deadly single incidents to hit the Austin area.

The balloon had been gliding along a portion of Caldwell County near Jolly Road, about two miles west of Lockhart, when witnesses said it appeared to strike high-voltage power lines and catch fire. There were no survivors.

It was one of the deadliest hot air balloon crashes in U.S. history and was the worst such accident since a 2013 balloon crash in Egypt killed 19.

A woman who lived near the site of the crash described hearing popping noises before spotting a large fireball that she at first thought might have been a tractor exploding.

The resident, Margaret Wylie, said she was in her home when she heard the popping noise. While outside, she heard a second pop and then turned toward the sound to see a fireball erupt from the scene of the crash in a hay field.

“About the time I looked over there was when a whooshing sound happened and the fireball went up,” she said.

WITNESS: Balloon was low, ‘barely moving’

It was about 7:44 a.m. when Caldwell County emergency responders first received the report after Wylie called 911. When Caldwell County sheriff’s deputies arrived, it quickly became apparent that a hot air balloon had crashed.

The National Transportation Safety Board is heading up the investigation and has assigned a “Go Team” of technical experts from Washington to examine the crash. Many were still en route to Texas late Saturday. The FBI is also assisting the safety board in collecting evidence from the scene.

Just minutes before the crash, a husband and wife traveling on the Texas 130 toll road spotted the balloon, which was piloted by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides owner Alfred “Skip” Nichols. Joe Gonzales told the American-Statesman that, even from his vantage point speeding by, he was concerned that the low-flying balloon had too many people aboard.

“I’d never seen one like that with that many people,” Gonzales said. “It just didn’t look right.”

His wife, Erika Gonzales, snapped a photo of the red, white and blue balloon with a smiley face as they passed.

THE SCENE: Photos from balloon crash site

Nichols was most recently certified to fly hot air balloons by the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2014, according the agency’s database of pilots.

The website for Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides states that it has balloons capable of carrying 24 people. The business is based in New Braunfels, according to the Better Business Bureau.

None of the people killed had been formally identified Saturday evening. An NTSB spokesman said more details about the crash would be provided Sunday.

RELATED: Balloon pilot remembered by friend for safety

Safety board senior adviser Erik Grosof classified the crash as a “major incident” because of the significant loss of life. On Saturday, the investigation was in a “stake-down” phase, meaning that staff were working mainly to secure the site of the crash and gain control of the wreckage.

The investigation would begin “full bore” once the team of experts arrives, Grosof said, and it will be led by NTSB investigator Bill English. For now, investigators are treating the area of the crash much like a crime scene, he said.

“This will be a difficult site for us to work through,” Grosof said.

Central Texas Red Cross officials are also at the scene to provide drinks and food for the first responders.

STATESMAN INVESTIGATES: Officials have warned of just this kind of balloon crash

Bruce Lavorgna, spokesman for the Central Texas Ballooning Association who has been flying balloons for 26 years, said power lines are the most common cause of balloon crashes.

“They’re very difficult to see from the air,” Lavorgna said. He asks his passengers to tell him if they see any lines, because they’re easy to overlook.

Troy Bradley, a hot air balloon pilot in New Mexico, said it’s unlikely that the balloon could have caught fire by itself; rather, he guessed that the balloon basket struck power lines, which perhaps ignited fuel.

High-voltage power lines are very near the scene of Saturday’s crash.

The area between Austin and San Antonio is a common place to fly balloons, Bradley said. Lavorgna said a 16-person balloon would be larger than what he usually sees. He said big balloons are more common near Albuquerque, N.M., where there’s more open space and a great deal of balloon traffic.

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Hot air balloons are very simple mechanically, Bradley said, and neither hot weather nor the size of this balloon should have presented a problem. Bradley said he’s flown balloons with up to 28 people, and he flies throughout the summer in New Mexico.

Balloon flight relies on the air inside the balloon being significantly hotter than the surrounding air, Bradley said, so in hot weather, the balloon has to heat up more. But as long as the temperature is taken into account, he said, summer heat wouldn’t stop a flight.

At the time of the crash, the temperature was about 75 degrees and a light wind of 5 mph out of the south was reported in that area, according to the National Weather Service.

In the crash’s aftermath, Texas politicians offered their condolences to the families of victims.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “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.”

REACTION: The governor’s full statement

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz also gave 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,” he said.

State Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, who represents Caldwell County, offered his thoughts and prayers for the victims. Cyrier tweeted that he had often “seen and have flown by” the hot air balloon involved.

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