Lockhart, Texas: No Survivors in Hot Air Balloon Crash With 16 on Board

Lockhart, Texas: No Survivors in Hot Air Balloon Crash With 16 on Board

LOCKHART, Tex. — A hot-air balloon carrying 16 people caught fire and crashed in Central Texas on Saturday, officials said, and the local authorities said no one had survived.

The balloon crashed into a pasture near Lockhart, a town about 30 miles south of Austin, said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Initial reports from officials said the balloon had plummeted after catching fire in the air, but at least one witness said the craft might have struck high-tension power lines before hitting the ground and bursting into flames. The accident occurred shortly after 7:40 a.m., Mr. Lunsford said.

In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Lunsford said that officials were on their way to the site and that the National Transportation Safety Board had been notified. The agency will be in charge of the investigation.

The names of the pilots and passengers and their relations to one another were not released. Mr. Lunsford said he did not know what had led to the crash or if there had been a distress call.

The Caldwell County sheriff, Daniel Law, said in a statement, “It does not appear at this time that there were any survivors.”

Margaret Wylie, 66, who lives a quarter-mile from the crash site, said she saw the balloon explode into a fireball after it struck the ground on a neighbor’s property. She said she had been on her back porch when her dog “really started raising the roof.”

“When I looked over toward my neighbor’s property,” Ms. Wylie said, “that’s about the time I saw flames shooting out sideways, and then just a fireball. At 66, that’s not something I want to see again.”

The crash occurred in a rural area less than an hour from Austin.

The balloon fell in a large open field scorched from the summer heat. Several big power lines atop towers ran east and west at the field’s southern end. A few farmhouses were visible in the distance.

Throngs of journalists had arrived by late morning, but investigators sealed off the perimeter and kept them from the spot where the balloon had descended.

Ms. Wylie said that based on what she had heard, she believed “the balloon hit the wires, and it caused the deflation of the balloon, and then it hit the ground.”

She initially heard a pop, she said, and then another that sounded like gunfire.

“I figured that was the balloon hitting the power line,” she said. “By the time I looked that direction, it was on the ground, and I heard a whooshing sound and an explosion.”

Ms. Wylie said the balloon was so engulfed that she did not see any passengers. She immediately called 911, she said.

“It was on the ground by the time I saw it,” she said. “It didn’t burst into flames until the basket hit the ground.”

The power lines near the crash site belong to the Lower Colorado River Authority Transmission Services Corporation, The Austin American-Statesman reported. A spokeswoman for the utility told the newspaper that two circuits were down after the crash, although no customers were without power.

But neither the utility spokeswoman nor investigators could confirm whether the power lines had been involved in the crash.

Erik Grosof, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board, said the crash had been classified as a major accident because of its “significant loss of life.” A full investigative team from the safety board was to arrive later Saturday, he said, and the F.B.I. had been asked to help look at the evidence, a normal request after major accidents.

Asked to confirm reports that 16 people had been killed, Mr. Grosof said, “Right now, we have a number of fatalities.”

Margaret Wylie, who lives near the crash site, said the balloon burst into flames after hitting the ground. “That’s not something I want to see again,” she said. Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Margaret Wylie, who lives near the crash site, said the balloon burst into flames after hitting the ground. “That’s not something I want to see again,” she said. Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Sixteen deaths would rank the accident as one of the worst hot-air balloon crashes in history, surpassed only by a crash in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 19 people in February 2013.

In that crash, the balloon was sailing over archaeological sites at dawn when a fire caused an explosion in a gas canister and the balloon plummeted more than 1,000 feet to the ground. Two people survived the crash — the pilot and a passenger, who jumped from the basket from about 30 feet. Nineteen tourists died, including the husband of the surviving passenger.

Before Saturday, the worst balloon accident in the United States occurred in August 1993 in Woody Creek, Colo., near Aspen, when a wind gust blew a balloon into a power line complex. The basket was severed and fell more than 100 feet to the ground, killing all six people aboard.

Replying to a question at a news conference, Mr. Grosof said it was his “understanding” that the balloon tour was run by a company called Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, in New Braunfels. Calls to the company were not answered, but a person reached at its reservation service said the company offered flights in the Austin area coinciding with the sunrise. It also operates near San Antonio and in other areas. She declined to speak about the accident.

Lockhart, Texas: No Survivors in Hot Air Balloon Crash With 16 on Board

The sheriff’s statement said that a call came in to the local law enforcement authorities after 7:40 a.m. reporting a possible vehicle accident. When emergency responders arrived, “it was apparent that the reported fire was the basket portion of a hot-air balloon,” the statement said.

“The balloon was occupied, and it does not appear at this time that there were any survivors of the crash,” the statement said. “Investigators are determining the number and the identities of victims.”

Chris O’Neil, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman, said investigators were expected to remain on the scene for a few days. Seven to 10 days after the field work is completed, he said, they will release a preliminary report on the accident.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement extending his condolences, calling the accident a “heartbreaking tragedy.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community,” he said. “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.”

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