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Hot Air Balloon Crashes In Central Texas, Killing 16: What We Know So Far

Ralph Barrera
Austin American-Statesman via Reuters
The partial frame of a hot air balloon is visible above a crop field as investigators comb the wreckage from the Saturday morning accident that left 16 people feared dead.

Here's the latest on Saturday's deadly hot air balloon crash in Central Texas. 

Balloon traveled eight miles before crash

Federal officials say there is evidence that some part of the hot air balloon hit electrical wires before crashing, killing 16 on board.

The balloon traveled about eight miles before it crashed in Central Texas. The basket was found about three-quarters of a mile from the balloon material itself.

The first power line trip was at 7:42 a.m., and the first call to 911 was a minute later.

The balloon fell in a pasture Saturday morning near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. The crash site was near a row of high-tension power lines, and aerial photos showed an area of scorched land underneath. One witness described seeing a "fireball" near the power lines.

Robert Sumwalt with the National Transportation Safety Board said at a news conference that the balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.

Sumwalt said 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 didn't launch at the expected 6:45 a.m. time, but was delayed about 20 minutes.

Sumwalt said the ground crew communicated with the balloon by cellphone, and the pilot navigated with an iPad.

It reportedly was foggy after Saturday morning's accident, but that it wasn't clear what the weather was like during the flight itself.

Sumwalt said a fire expert will help investigate the crash, which is the deadliest such accident in U.S. history.

Pilot arrested for DWI in 2000

A Missouri police officer says the man who piloted the air balloon that crashed in Texas was arrested in 2000 on a felony driving while intoxicated charge and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DWI in 2002.

Officers arrested Alfred G. Nichols in Missouri where he lived before moving to Texas. The officer says that based on photographs he is confident the man arrested then is the pilot in the Texas crash on Saturday that killed 16 people. Nichols was known as "Skip" in both places and owned a hot air balloontouring company in St. Louis County at the time.

The officer 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."

Remembering the victims

As Matt Rowan and his wife, Sunday Rowan, prepared to take a hot air balloon ride they texted family and posted on social media pictures of the balloon set up, the rising sun, them in the basket.

Matt Rowan's brother, Josh Rowan, told The Associated Press on Sunday: "It's a bit haunting now but I guess it was a bit of a play-by-play."

He says that as word began to trickle out that a hot air balloon crashed Saturday morning their families hoped that it wasn't theirs, but it soon became clear it was.

Josh Rowan said the two, both 34, grew up in College Station. They had been friends since high school and just got married in February.

He says, "They were really happy and they were in love and they were really starting a life together."

He said that Sunday Rowan, who had a young son who wasn't with them that morning, worked at a clothing store and Matt Rowan was a researcher and scientist at Brooke Army Medical Center. His research centered on treating burn victims.

Brent Jones, the father of Sunday Rowan's 5-year-old son, tells Dallas television station KDFW that Matt Rowan was an amazing man and Sunday Rowan was "obsessed with her son's happiness."

Judy LeUnes, Matt Rowan's 5th grade teacher and a family friend, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle: "He was fun to teach. He was excited every day."

Identifying victims 'a long process'

Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law and the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed the number of victims -- 16 -- in a statement Sunday. The balloon crashed Saturday morning.

The statement says that the National Transportation Safety Board and medical professionals have said identification of the victims will be "a long process."

The National Transportation Safety Board says they're particularly interested in any cellphone video of the balloon's flight.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said Sunday at a news conference in Washington that balloons don't have black boxes, but that cellphone video has been helpful in the past.

Investigators will be combing the wreckage looking for devices that have recoverable video shot by passengers. They'll also be reviewing any video shot by witnesses.

The crash happened Saturday morning in a pasture near Lockhart, which is about 30 miles south of Austin. At least 16 people died, making it apparently the worst such crash in U.S. history and among the deadliest in the world.

'Our profound sadness': Company releases statement

The hot air balloon company issued this statement on Facebook:

"It is with extraordinarily heavy hearts that we announce the suspension of operations at Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The horrific crash near Lockhart, Texas has taken from us our owner and Chief Pilot, Skip Nichols, as well as 15 passengers, all of whom saw what was planned to be a special day turn into an unspeakable tragedy. At this time, no information has been shared with us by the investigating authorities; it is for that reason we are unable to speak with the families of the passengers, but we do want you to know that we are with you in spirit and prayer and share your grief. There are simply no words to express our profound sadness at this event that has taken away so many of our loved ones." 


Colleague IDs balloon pilot

Authorities have not provided the reason why the balloon crashed or identifications of those on board. Alan Lirette told The Associated Press that his roommate and co-worker Skip Nichols piloted the balloon.

Two officials familiar with the investigation who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly have said Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides operated it.

Lirette said he was part of the team that launched the balloon Saturday morning, so he didn't see it crash. He did not say the location of the balloon launch.

He said there 15 people on board plus Nichols in a balloon that could have held up to 17 people total. He said several passengers seemed to be related.

Records indicate that the apparent pilot of the hot air balloon was federally certified to fly balloons.

Lirette said he lived with Nichols in a home in Kyle, Texas, that county records show is owned by Alfred G. Nichols. Nichols moved south to Texas to be able to fly year-around, which the climate allows, Lirette said.

According to an online Federal Aviation Administration database, Alfred G. Nichols of Chesterfield, Missouri, was medically certified to fly in July 1996 and was rated a commercial pilot of lighter-than-airballoons on July 14, 2010. The rating is limited to hot-air balloons with an airborne heater.

Missouri records list Nichols as the owner of Air Balloon Sports LLC, based out of the same Chesterfield address as the FAA record.

'A good pilot'

An ex-girlfriend of the hot air balloon pilot says that he was made for the job.

Wendy Bartch told the Austin American-Statesman that she used to date Skip Nichols and had assisted him with a Missouri-based balloon business.

"He was a good pilot and loved people," she said, adding that he'd been involved with hot air balloons for about two decades.

Bartch also said Nichols was cautious about keeping his passengers safe and that at least two vehicles would follow the balloon on the ground.

A Texas hot air balloon business owner who also does inspections says the balloon that crashed, killing 16, had "very good equipment, very new equipment."

Philip Bryant runs Ballooning Adventures of Texas in Richmond, which also does manufacturer-mandated inspections and maintenance for other operators.

He said Skip 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, and that the state of Texas does not inspect or regulate them.

Bryant said Nichols told him he moved from the St. Louis area to Central Texas because there was less competition.

Bryant said flying balloons in Texas can be problematic since hot temperatures create rising moisture in the air, meaning it's only possible to fly for about two hours after sunrise. The crash happened about 7:40 a.m. Saturday.

He speculated that pilot error likely contributed because the equipment was in good shape.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.