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Pilot of Goodyear Blimp Saves Passengers Before Dying in Fiery Crash

The pilot who died Sunday when the airship he was inside caught fire and crashed in Germany died a hero, saving the lives of the three passengers onboard by urging them to jump to safety while he stayed behind.

Mike Nerandzic, 53,  a veteran airship pilot who flew for more than 20 years, brought the Goodyear airship to just below 7 feet off the ground and told his passengers to jump. After the three leaped to safety, the airship was soon engulfed in flames and soared to 150 feet due to the loss of weight in the cabin.

The native Australian has been called a hero after he told them to jump, saying, “We’re having a crash.”

"We could also hear the cries of the doomed pilot as the fire surrounded him," one witness said, according to the Daily Mail. "It was terrible."

There is speculation that the airship’s propellers may have hit the ground too hard during the landing. Spiegel newspaper cited media reports that indicated there had been a smell of fuel aboard the airship during the trip.

The passengers included a photographer from Germany's Bild newspaper and two from RTL television, the Daily Mail reported.

The accident occurred at the Reichelsheim aerodrome, near Friedberg in central Germany. The cause of the crash has not been determined, but an investigation is under way.

The airship was owned and operated by Lightship Europe Limited. It was one of two leased by Goodyear from Lightship Europe Limited for marketing purposes in Europe, Goodyear said in a statement.

"Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the crew member, and also with our colleagues and the passengers involved with the airship tour in Germany," Goodyear said in the statement.’

A former colleague told the Telegraph that Nerandzic was a talented pilot with a deep passion for flying.

"He has always put other people first. I don't even think he would have realized he was doing it -- it would have just been instinct," the friend, who declined to be named, told the paper. "He will be a real loss to our community."