A hot air balloon carrying 16 people caught fire and crashed in central Texas early on Saturday, and it appeared no one survived, authorities said.
Authorities would not confirm the exact number of deaths in Saturday’s crash, but US Federal Aviation Administration representative Lynn Lunsford said the balloon was carrying at least 16 people and the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it did not look like anyone survived.
US National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Erik Grosof said a full investigation would begin when more federal officials arrived.
“This will be a difficult site for us to work through,” Grosof said.
The crash happened at about 7:40am in a pasture near Lockhart, which is about 50km south of Austin. The land near the crash site is mostly farmland, with corn crops and grazing cattle. Cutting through that farmland is a row of high-capacity electrical transmission lines about four to five stories tall.
The site of the crash appears to be right below the overhead lines, although authorities have not provided further details about what happened. Aerial photos showed an area of charred pasture underneath power lines.Margaret Wylie lives about 0.5km from the crash site and told reporters that she was letting her dog out when she heard a “pop, pop, pop.”
“I looked around and it was like a fireball going up,” she said, adding that the fireball was under large power lines and almost high enough to reach the bottom of them.
The balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, according to two officials familiar with the investigation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Skip Nichols identifies himself on his Facebook page as the chief pilot of Heart of Texas and pictures posted by him are on the business’ Facebook page.
Warning about potential high-fatality accidents, safety investigators recommended two years ago that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) impose greater oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators, government documents show. The FAA rejected those recommendations.
In a letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta in April 2014, the US National Transportation Safety Board urged the FAA to require tour companies to get agency permission to operate, and to make balloon operators subject to FAA safety inspections.
The FAA’s Huerta responded that regulations were unnecessary because the risks were too low.
After Huerta’s reply, the safety board classified the FAA’s response to the two balloon safety recommendations as “open-unacceptable,” which means the safety board was not satisfied with the FAA’s response.
Speaking to reporters just before leaving for Texas to lead the crash investigation, safety board member Robert Sumwalt said he was studying the board’s recommendations from previous hot air balloon accidents.
“I think the fact that it is open-unacceptable pretty much speaks for itself,” he said, adding that the team was still trying to gather basic information about the accident.
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