WASHINGTON: A hot air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing all 16 onboard, appeared to have dragged along a power line before plummeting to the ground, an investigator said on Monday (Tuesday in Manila).
The fiery crash on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) in a pasture in Lockhart, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Austin, was the deadliest hot air balloon accident on record in the United States and one of the deadliest ever in the world.
“There’s evidence of multiple points of contact (with the power line), arcing along the wires. And 30 feet (nine meters) along the wires, there was evidence of abrasion,” National Transportation Safety Board official Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference near the crash site.
The balloon’s ground crew told investigators they had received a position update from the pilot at 7:26 am (1226 GMT), which is normally sent when preparing to land.
The balloon’s top vent was also open, which indicates a landing maneuver, Sumwalt said.
But there was no more communication from the balloon and the ground crew was not able to locate it, Sumwalt said.
“They drove around for about an hour, trying to call the pilot, even trying to call phone numbers of the passengers they had from the manifest,” he said.
Evidence collected so far found no problems with the balloon or the weight carried, nor were there any major weather issues that would have interfered with the flight.
Aerial footage of the crash site showed the red, white and blue balloon with a large yellow smiley face spread across the pasture.
The balloon traveled about eight miles from the start of its journey until the time of its crash. The basket landed three-quarters of a mile from the balloon itself.
Authorities were still working to identify the victims using dental records.
‘Reflection in the clouds’
Media reports said the pilot was Alfred “Skip” Nichols, owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
Family members of the victims posted tributes and fundraising appeals online.
They said those killed included Paige Brabson, a young woman with an 11-month-old daughter who worked in a restaurant in San Antonio. She died along with her mother Lorilee.
Also killed were Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens.
“They adored their children and grandchildren and loved nothing more than spending time with them,” a GoFundMe page said about the longtime pre-school teacher and her husband.
Brian Neill of San Antonio had surprised his wife Tressie with a sunrise balloon ride for their anniversary.
From the air, Brian sent his brother a photo and asked, “Can you see our reflection in the clouds?”
“Both believers in Jesus, we know both of their souls are now with the Lord, and our family will forever see their reflection in the clouds,” their GoFundMe page read.
Authorities were hoping to retrieve evidence from 14 devices — phones, cameras and an iPad — recovered from the crash site.
Previously, the highest number of fatalities in a single US hot air balloon crash was six.
In 2013, a sunrise hot air balloon flight over Egypt’s ancient temple city of Luxor caught fire and crashed, killing 19 tourists. The pilot and one other tourist survived by jumping from the balloon.