By Moses Leos III
Authorities from across the country are continuing to investigate a catastrophic hot air balloon accident that killed 16 people near Lockhart Saturday, including a Kyle man who is believed to have been the pilot.
Physical evidence at the scene indicated the balloon, or some component of the vehicle, hit power lines, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a Sunday press conference.
The accident occurred Saturday in a field close to Jolly Road near Lockhart. According to authorities, the accident involved a Kubicek model balloon owned by the Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
Four of the 16 victims in the crash have been identified, including Kyle resident Alfred “Skip” Nichols, who is believed to have been the pilot, according to a report from KXAN.
Sumwalt said the pilot was certified to operate a hot air balloon. He said authorities were working to gather the pilot’s records from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The passengers, who have not been officially identified by authorities, met at the San Marcos Walmart along Highway 80 Saturday and were all driven to Fentress Air Park.
The hot air balloon ride was scheduled for 6:49 a.m. Saturday, but experienced a 20 minute delay prior to take off, Sumwalt said. The NTSB is continuing to investigate the reason for the delay.
Sumwalt said authorities reported a power line trip at 7:42 a.m., with the first call to 911 one minute later. He said all 16 passengers were in the area of the gondola, which was 3/4ths of a mile away from the balloon. The balloon traveled eight miles from the point where it took off to where it crashed.
Pictures gathered by authorities after the crash showed there were “some clouds in the area” and those first on the scene said it was “very foggy” after the accident, Sumwalt said. He added one weather report from the San Marcos airport had a ceiling of 500 feet. Sumwalt said ceilings can vary.
According to FAA regulations, a pilot must maintain one mile of visibility and the sky to be clear of clouds to fly. Sumwalt said a chase crew followed the balloon and kept in contact with the pilot via iPad. It is unknown at this time if weather played a role in the accident.
Authorities were scheduled to interview the chase crew Monday; Sumwalt said no video of the crash has surfaced at this time.
Sumwalt said the FBI is assisting the NTSB with the wreckage, including obtaining “perishable” evidence from the scene. Authorities collected 14 personal electronic devices from the scene, including cell phones, one iPad and cameras. The devices would be taken back to the NTSB lab for processing, Sumwalt said.
Authorities will also review procedures of the Heart of Texas Balloon Rides prior to the flight taking place.
“We’re here to find out what happened … to keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt said there have been 60 hot air balloon accidents since 2011 with five of those accidents resulting in seven total fatalities.