LOCKHART, Texas – A hot air balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture in Central Texas, killing all 16 on board, according to federal authorities investigating the worst such disaster in U.S. history.
A power line was tripped at 7:42 a.m. Saturday, and the first call to 911 came a minute later, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said during a news conference. The crash site was near a row of high-tension power lines, and aerial photos showed an area of scorched land underneath.
"There is physical evidence to indicate that the balloon, or some component of the balloon, hit the physical wires themselves and not the tower," Sumwalt said.
The NTSB will look at several factors including reports of foggy weather, but is concentrating first on gathering evidence such as witness statements.
The pilot was Skip Nichols, 49, according to Alan Lirette, who identified Nichols as his best friend, roommate and boss. Lirette said he helped launch the balloon. The NTSB has not yet publicly identified the pilot or the passengers.
Matt Rowan and his wife, Sunday Rowan, were among those on board, his brother Josh Rowan said. The recently married couple from San Antonio, both 34, had texted family and posted on social media pictures of the balloon set up, the rising sun and them in the basket.
"It's a bit haunting now," Josh Rowan told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The NTSB said the balloon was run by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Nichols' Facebook page identifies him as the chief pilot.
The passengers met the balloon operator in the San Marcos Wal-Mart parking lot at about 5:45 a.m. Saturday, and traveled to Fentress Texas Airpark. Ground crew members told the NTSB that they launched about 20 minutes after the expected 6:45 a.m. time.
The balloon traveled about 8 miles from takeoff to crash, and the basket was found about three-quarters of a mile from the balloon material itself.
Identification of the victims will be "a long process," Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law quoted the NTSB and medical professionals as saying.
An online Federal Aviation Administration database said an Alfred G. Nichols of Chesterfield, Missouri, was medically certified to fly in 1996 and was rated a commercial pilot of lighter-than-air balloons on July 14, 2010. The rating is limited to hot air balloons with an airborne heater. Missouri records also listed Nichols as the owner of Air Balloon Sports LLC, based from the same Chesterfield address as the FAA record.
A Missouri police officer said Nichols was arrested in 2000 on a felony driving while intoxicated charge and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DWI in 2002.
The officer said that based on photographs he is confident the man arrested then is the same man who piloted the Texas balloon. Nichols was known as "Skip" in both places and owned a hot air balloon touring company in St. Louis County at the time, said the officer, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about doing business with Nichols, the third time since 2000 that Nichols had gotten an unsatisfactory record for not responding to complaints. The paper quoted the BBB as saying Nichols was on probation in Missouri for distribution, delivery or manufacturing a controlled substance and that when asked to respond, Nichols said, "I prefer to make no comment on that."
Lirette declined to answer specific questions about the balloon's launch or its crash.
"That's the only thing I want to talk about, is that he's a great pilot," Lirette said, speaking to the AP from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle. "There's going to be all kinds of reports out in the press and I want a positive image there too."
Wendy Bartch, a former girlfriend of Nichols, told the Austin American-Statesman that he was "a good pilot and loved people," was cautious about keeping passengers safe, and had been involved with hot air balloons for about two decades.
Philip Bryant of Ballooning Adventures of Texas in Richmond, which also does inspections and maintenance for other operators, said the balloon had "very good equipment, very new equipment." Nichols brought his balloon into his inspection facility in May 2014 and was issued a one-year recertification, Bryant said. The manufacturer of Nichols' balloon mandates an annual inspection, he said, adding that he couldn't do it this year but believes Nichols took it to another inspector.
Bryant said Nichols told him he moved from the St. Louis area to Texas because there was less competition.
Crews recovered 14 personal electronic devices, including cellphones, and iPad and three cameras from the crash site, which will be sent to the NTSB's lab in Washington for investigation.
Margaret Wylie, who lives about a quarter-mile from the site, told AP she was letting her dog out when she heard a "pop, pop, pop" and saw what looked "like a fireball going up."
Saturday's crash was one of the worst hot air balloon accidents on record. In 2013, 19 people were killed and two were injured when a balloon caught fire over Luxor, Egypt, and plunged 1,000 feet.