SHREVEPORT, La. – Two people riding in a hot air balloon were killed when they either fell out or jumped after it reportedly hit at least one power line and caught fire, police said.
The debris field stretched for "quite some distance," Shreveport Police spokeswoman Kacee Hargrave said.
Two balloons, including Harwell's Ol' Blue (search), took off from Keithville's Bluebird Hill Airport just before 7 p.m. Wednesday. A few minutes later, witnesses told authorities they saw the balloon with Harwell and DeMoss aboard, then saw flames.
"I was holding my little grandbaby. And we were waving to them and talking to them," said Sharon Bivins. "They were directly overhead and were just barely over the tops of the trees. They went over and then climbed higher and higher and then dropped. And then we saw the fire and they started going up again."
Bivins said her daughter thought the flames meant they were just adding more hot air to the balloon.
"But I said 'No, it's on fire! The basket disintegrated and then a man jumped out or fell out. It was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life," she said.
Shreveport firefighters believe the basket may have struck a power line, Fire Department spokesman Brian Crawford. A short in the 34,000-volt power line tripped breakers and caused a momentary outage in the area, AEP-SWEPCO spokesman Scott McCloud said.
Fire crews found Harwell alive but with life-threatening injuries. He was taken to LSU Hospital in Shreveport, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival, Crawford said. DeMoss' body was found about a block from Harwell. She had been burned and was injured when she jumped or fell from the burning craft, said authorities.
The balloon continued to drift and scatter debris before alighting at South Park Mall, which now is used as a church, authorities said.
The second balloon, piloted by Harwell's brother, was not involved in the fire or the collision with the power line and landed safely in the Cargill Park area.
Angela Gullo, who had ballooned with Harwell for years and serves as part of a balloon ground crew, said he was a wonderful man and pilot.
"He was crazy, always acting up and always getting onto me because I was so bossy and always on the radio telling everyone what to do since I can't fly," she said.
Gullo, her husband and several other area residents, including Joey Scarpinatto, often ballooned with Harwell as a group across Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arkansas.
"Bill loved doing this. And he loved the people who did it with him," Scarpinatto said. "We all shared that love."