ATLANTA – Searchers found the body on Monday of a hot-air balloon pilot who went missing after he was hit by a thunderstorm in Georgia, a sheriff said.
A helicopter spotted the balloon, and searchers on the ground then found the body of 63-year-old Edward Ristaino, Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said.
The balloon was found about seven to eight miles east of Fitzgerald, the sheriff said. It was draped over the basket containing the body in a heavily wooded area.
A fast-developing thunderstorm sucked in Ristaino's balloon while he was ferrying skydivers on Friday, then sent the craft plummeting toward the ground. The skydivers parachuted to safety.
Authorities had used helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles to search the woods in south Georgia for Ristaino.
Two of the skydivers said Ristaino kept them safe by spotting a field where they could safely parachute and telling them to jump as the storm approached.
"If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm," said skydiver Dan Eaton of Augusta, Ga.
He said he didn't think Ristaino's choice to embark on the trip was reckless. They took off into a blue sky from a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga. From the air, they could see only a fog-like haze that later turned into a fierce thunderstorm.
The storm "came out of nowhere," said skydiver Jessica Wesnofske of Cornelia, Ga.