16 people dead after hot air balloon crashes near Austin

Pilot identified by friends as Skip Nichols

LOCKHART, Texas – An investigation is underway after 16 people were killed in a hot air balloon crash Saturday morning in Central Texas, authorities said.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said that they want witnesses to come forward and are investigating the hot air balloon company.

Investigators said they have recovered multiple phones, cameras and recording devices from the crash site, but those items are mostly destroyed. They still plan on sending them to analysts who might be able to recover some of the images.

The crash site is near massive high-capacity power lines. NTSB officials said they think the balloon hit the lines and not the tower, but what made them come in contact with the lines is still a part of the investigation.

Officials confirmed that the basket hit the power lines and that there was a power trip minutes before the first 911 call.

The balloon caught fire before crashing into a pasture shortly after 7:40 a.m. Saturday near Lockhart, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.

Witness Margaret Wylie said there were two explosions.

"I was inside when I heard the first pop," she said. "I started looking towards Maxwell and by the time I got over here, I got there just in time to see the fireball go up in the air."

The Caldwell County Sheriff's Office said in a statement that investigators are determining the identities of the victims. The NTSB and medical professionals have said identification of the victims will be "a long process."

"The chase team came up, and they were pretty shook up. So I figured that it had to have been a hot air balloon because they were really, really stressed," Wylie said.

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.

Federal investigators have not publicly identified the pilot or the company that operated the balloon, but roommate and co-worker Alan Lirette told The Associated Press that Nichols piloted the balloon that crashed Saturday.

Lirette said Nichols was also his best friend and roommate at home in Kyle, Texas.

The NTSB is looking into whether Nichols filed a passenger manifest before taking off.

Katy couple Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens are among the victims in the crash. Tresa was a teacher at Tigerland Child Care Center in Katy.

The brother of a 34-year-old and his wife said they were on the balloon, NBC News reports. Joshua Rowan told NBC News that his brother, Matt Rowan, 34, and his sister-in-law, Sunday Rowan, were on the doomed flight and would be "incredibly missed."

According to NBC News, the couple had been recently married, and Matt Rowan had just started a new job as an Army hospital burns trial unit chief in San Antonio. 

"They were very happy and very much in love. You could see it in the pictures and you could see it in the way they interacted with eachother," Joshua said. "They were very much in love even down to the last minutes, they were still pictures of them smiling and laughing. They were wonderfully in love. They were starting a life in San Antonio together."


KXAN also confirmed that mother and daughter Lorilee and Paige Brabson, of San Antonio, were two passengers in the hot air balloon when it crashed.

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.

What is coming to light is a warning from the NTSB  two years ago, when they told the Federal Aviation Administration of the potential for hot air balloon deaths and recommended greater safety oversight of commercial operators.

The FAA rejected those recommendations, saying regulations were unnecessary because the risks were too low.

Now those two agencies are working together with the FBI to determine what went wrong.

"We'll also have victim specialists, weather experts, all who will be arriving tonight to begin what will be a significant investigation into this tragedy," NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said

The land near the crash site is mostly farmland, with corn crops and grazing cattle. Cutting through that farmland is a row of massive high-capacity transmission lines about 4-5 stories tall. The site of the crash appears to be right below the overhead lines, though authorities haven't provided further details about what happened.

The balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, two officials familiar with the investigation said. The officials spoke on condition that they not be named because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Heart of Texas' website said it offers rides in the San Antonio, Houston and Austin areas. The company's Facebook page features photos of a hot air balloon with a smiley face with sunglasses on it up in the air, people waving from a large basket on the ground and group selfies taken while up in the air.

The operation does not appear to be registered with the state of Texas.

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. Nichols, 49, is also the registered owner of Missouri-based Air Balloon Sports LLC. No one answered the door at a home in Kyle, Texas, believed to be his.

Calls to Heart of Texas operations manager Sarah Nichols, 72, rang unanswered, and a woman in Missouri believed to be his sister did not return calls seeking comment.

"I was really shocked when the young man from the chase crew said there was 15, 16 people on board. I didn't know they made baskets that big," Wylie said.

We've been told some hot air balloons can carry up to 30 people.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued the following statement after the crash: "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."

Lockhart is about 30 miles south of Austin.

Some of the worst accidents involving recreational hot air balloons:

  • Feb. 26, 2013: A hot air balloon flying over Luxor, Egypt, caught fire and plunged 1,000 feet (300 meters) to the ground, crashing into a sugar cane field and killing at least 19 foreign tourists.
  • Aug. 23, 2012: Six people died and 26 were injured when a hot air balloon carrying 32 people, mostly tourists including some children, caught fire and crashed near the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.
  • Jan. 07, 2012: A hot air balloon struck power lines near Carterton, New Zealand, and exploded, crashing to the ground. All 11 people on board were killed.
  • Oct. 14, 2009: Four Dutch tourists were killed in Guangxi, China, after pilots lost control and their hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed.
  • Aug. 26, 2001: Six people, including a child, were killed when their hot air balloon touched a power line at Verrens-Arvey, in southwestern France.
  • June 17, 1999: Four passengers were killed when their hot air balloon hit a power line near Ibbenburen, Germany.
  • Jan. 31, 1996: Five people died in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland, when their hot air balloon crashed into a mountainside at a height of 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).
  • Aug. 8, 1993: Six people were killed when their balloon hit a power line near Aspen, Colorado, tearing off the basket and sending it plunging 100 feet (30 meters) to the ground.
  • Dec. 11, 1990: Four people died near downtown Columbus, Ohio, after their hot air balloon hit a television tower and deflated.
  • Oct. 6, 1990: Four people were killed in a balloon crash at Gaenserndorf, near Vienna.
  • Aug. 13, 1989: Thirteen people were killed when their hot air balloon collided with another over the Australian outback near the town of Alice Springs. The two balloons were flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet (600 meters) when one plunged to the ground after the collision.
  • Oct. 3, 1982: An explosion on board a hot air balloon carrying nine people at a festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, killed four people and injured five.
  • Aug. 6, 1981: Five people were killed and one seriously injured when a hot air balloon caught fire after touching electrical wires and crashed in a suburb of Chicago.
  • 1785: Two Frenchmen attempting to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon were killed when their balloon caught fire and crashed, in possibly the first fatal aviation accident.