On Saturday, July 30, a hot air balloon in Caldwell County struck power lines before catching on fire, killing all 16 passengers.
CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas -- The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that a hot air balloon in Caldwell County struck power lines before catching on fire, killing all 16 people on board on Saturday, July 30.
The accident occurred shortly after 7:40 a.m. in the 700 block of Jolly Road, near Lockhart.
Neighbors in the area described hearing a sound like an explosion.
Margaret Wiley, who lives near the crash scene on Jolly Road, said, "I first thought the neighbors had a tractor out there and it exploded."
Another neighbor, Don Schulle, also heard the crash. "I heard a loud, like a gunfire, explosion and a little bit later I heard another one."
Schulle said he drove down the train tracks to see what was happening.
"You could tell it was a fire, a big ball of flames," Schulle said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story identified Rockland J. Owens of Alpine as being deceased. This information was incorrect and has been removed.
Close friends told KVUE that the pilot of the hot air balloon, Alfred ‘Skip’ Nichols IV, was killed in the crash.
According to his Facebook page, Nichols was the Chief Pilot for Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
In addition to Nichols, the Caldwell County Justice of the Peace confirmed that the following people were killed in the crash:
Family and friends confirmed to KVUE the identities of Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens from Katy, Texas, along with their friend Holly Huckabee. Tresa and Joe are survived by three children and four grandchildren, according to KVUE’s Houston sister station, KHOU. The GoFundMe page for the Owens can be found here
KVUE’s San Antonio sister station, KENS, reported that Paige Brabson bought Lorilee, her mother, the balloon ride tickets as a Mother’s Day gift. Paige leaves behind an 11-month-old son. A GoFundMe page for the Brabson family can be found here
Brian and Tressie Neill took the trip as an anniversary surprise that Brian had spent months planning, according to KENS. The couple leaves behind two daughters who are 16 and 20-years-old. A GoFundMe page for the Neill family can be found here
Friends of Matt and Sunday Rowan told KVUE that the couple had gotten married in February and were starting their life together in San Antonio. Matt was a Texas A&M honors graduate who recently started working as the Burns Trial Unit Chief at Brooke Army Medical Center. Sunday worked in a clothing store. She had a 5-year-old son. A GoFundMe page for the Rowans can be found here.
Ciera Taylor, daughter of Sandra Chalk, told KVUE that her mother recently married Ross Chalk and the two had been looking forward to the hot air balloon ride. The couple lived in Wimberley. A GoFundMe has been set up for memorial service costs and a donation in the Chalks' honor to their favorite wildlife preservation charities.
A memorial service was held for the victims at the Caldwell County Courthouse exactly one week after the crash on the morning of Saturday, August 6.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement on the crash that read:
"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."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz released the following statement on the crash:
“Heidi and I lift up in prayer all who have been impacted by today’s tragic accident in Lockhart and send our condolences to all who have lost their loved ones. As always, Texans are strong in the face of adversity, and we all stand together in support of the families and entire Lockhart community as they respond to and begin to heal from this terrible incident.”
The balloon company has been identified as Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. According to their website, they service the Austin, San Antonio and Houston areas and each flight can carry up to 24 people. NTSB did confirm that the balloon company was operating legally and that the pilot was licensed to fly the hot air balloon.
The company is not accredited by the Better Business Bureau and has a D+ rating. On their BBB Business Review, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides had six complaints with BBB in the last three years. The most recent complaint claimed that a flight reservation was rescheduled and the complainant was unable to get a refund from the company. Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides responded to the complaint, citing weather and their terms that customers agree to when they sign up for a flight.
According to KVUE's news partners at the Austin American-Statesman, Nichols, who lived in Missouri before moving to Texas, was arrested in Missouri in 2000 for a felony driving while intoxicated charge. The Statesman said the case was resolved two years later when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor version of the charge.
The Statesman also cited a report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that stated in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned customers about doing business with Nichols.
Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides announced on their Facebook page Sunday evening they were suspending operations following the crash.
The NTSB told KVUE's Jennifer Auh that investigators will speak with ground crews that followed the flight that crashed from below. They hope to learn more about the conversations between the ground crew and the pilot via iPhones and and iPad.
In a press conference Sunday afternoon, the NTSB stated that the balloon was a Czech-made model which has a history of crashes.
Investigators also said there may have been fog in the area when the crash happened.
NTSB said their primary focus, for now, is to gather as much information as possible from the crash site. So far, NTSB investigators said they have recovered what is left of the balloon, cell phones, cameras and an iPad used by the pilot. They said they have 14 personal electronic devices that may have captured the crash from the sky. Once all of the time-sensitive evidence is gathered they will take it to their labs in Washington D.C. for examination, NTSB officials said.
“Right now, we have iPhones and iPads that look very damaged, and so we’re not positive we can recover anything from the chips, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get something from those, but it will be a long painstaking process,” said Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB Board.
At this point, investigators have finished looking through the crash site, so the wreckage is ready to be moved. The remains of the balloon will be sent to a storage facility in Dallas on Monday.
Sumwalt said they will release a preliminary report in the next week or so. The final results are expected to take a year.
Another important aspect of this investigation is witness testimony and recordings, according to Sumwalt. If you have photographs or video of this incident, you’re asked to turn them over to NTSB by emailing witness@NTSB.gov.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Aviation Administration have joined the investigation. NTSB stated all the bodies of the 16 people killed have been recovered from the site.
Testimony at a NTSB hearing on Dec. 9 in Washington D.C. showed Nichols knew weather conditions were dangerous for a flight. Officials also found through the investigation that prescription drugs were in Nichols' system at the time of the crash. An autopsy report released by Caldwell County stated Nichols had Ritalin, oxycodone, diazepam (Valium), cyclobenzaprine, dextromethorphan (cough syrup) and antihistamines in his blood at the time of the crash.
Deadly hot air balloon crashes are rare over the last few decades. There have been four hot air balloon crashes this year with just one being a fatal crash. According to the NTSB, there have been 124 balloon fatalities since 1964.
One of the deadliest hot air balloon crashes was in February 2013 when a hot air balloon flying over Luxor, Egypt caught fire and plunged 1,000 feet to the ground killing at least 19 foreign tourists, according to USA Today.
Priya Sridhar, a reporter for KVUE's sister station in San Antonio, KENS 5, reported that balloon pilots must have a license and go through a flight review every two years, per the FAA. Sridhar also reported that hot air balloons used for commercial ventures are inspected by the FAA at least once a year.
According to the Associated Press, the FAA was warned by accident investigators two years ago of the potential for large numbers of hot air balloon deaths. Investigators recommended greater safety oversight of commercial operators, but the FAA rejected those recommendations. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that the regulations were unnecessary because the risks were too low, according to the AP.
The following are some of the worst recreational hot air balloon crashes recorded, according to the AP: