16 Feared Dead After Hot Air Balloon Crashes in Lockhart, TX
A hot air balloon caught fire early Saturday near the city of Lockhart, TX. All 16 of the passengers on board have been killed in the accident, according to officials.
The Sheriff's office responded to a 911 call about a possible vehicle crash around 7:40 am on Saturday. The incident turned out to be the balloon crash. The Caldwell County Sheriff's office reported that the fire was centered in the basket portion of the hot air balloon.
Officials told CNN on Saturday evening that they believe the balloon struck power lines before catching fire and crashing.
Federal officials with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have taken over the investigation in Lockhart, which is located about 30 miles south of Austin. The NTSB stresses that their investigation is just beginning, and they have no confirmed a cause of the incident.
An NTSB senior advisor told the media that they'll be bringing a large team in Saturday evening to start the investigation. “We'll also have investigators in our operations group, structures, systems. We'll also have victims’ specialist, weather experts, all who will be arriving tonight (Saturday) for what will be a significant investigation into this tragedy," the NTSB's Erik Grosof told the media Saturday.
ABC News reports that the balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The balloon was piloted by veteran Skip Nichols at the time of the crash, according to ABC News.
Philip Bryant, a balloon pilot, told CNN that he knew Nichols to be a safe and competent pilot. Bryant said he heard the balloon had hit power lines. "I don't know what would distract a pilot from seeing what was in front of him, but in this case that's apparently what happened," Bryant tells CNN.
The company operates balloons in the Austin, San Antonio and Houston areas. Each flight can carry up to 24 people, according to their website. The company has a Better Business Bureau rating of D+, but that is mostly related to complains about canceled balloon rides, according to a report from NBC News.
Governor Greg Abbott issued a statement early Saturday afternoon about the tragedy:
"Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences for all those who have been affected by today's heartbreaking tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community. The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost."