July 30, 2016 – At least 16 people are feared dead after a large hot air balloon struck a high-voltage power line, caught fire and crashed in a pasture near Lockhart, Texas, this morning, according to Texas authorities and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call around 7:44 a.m. local time about a possible vehicle accident. The fire apparently broke out during flight in the basket portion of the hot air balloon.
Witnesses described hearing popping sounds and then seeing a blaze of flames.
The vessel was 26 minutes into a one-hour flight when it caught fire then crashed close to power lines.
The cause of the fire and crash remains under investigation, and the Federation Aviation Administration has rushed to the scene. Lockhart, Texas is located about 30 miles from Austin.
“The popping sound was the balloon connecting with the electric lines and then by the time I turned and saw the fireball go up, the basket was on the ground,” witness Margaret Wylie said.
“All you could tell it was a fire, a big ball of flames and you could tell nothing what it was or anything,” witness Don Schulle said.
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The Sheriff’s Office said that investigators are still determining the number and the identities of victims.
It said it believed the balloon belonged to a tour group that offered hot air balloon rides.
Local media said the balloon belonged to the Heart of Texas Balloon Company. The company’s Facebook page identified the pilot as Skip Nichols.
A woman who was driving nearby took a picture of the balloon, with a smiley face emblazoned on its side, around half an hour before the crash.
“The basket was pretty big but you could tell there were a lot of people on it. Just sad!” the photographer, Tamara Calhoun, later wrote on Facebook.
Margaret Wylie, an area resident, told reporters she believed that before it crashed the balloon hit high power lines, which caused popping sounds like a gun going off.
“It went up like a big fireball,” she told reporters, adding the chase group for the balloon arrived on the scene after the sheriff’s department.
The crash of the balloon is the deadliest on record in the Western Hemisphere, said Jeff Chatterton, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of North America.
“There are thousands of balloons that go up every year,” he said. “This is unspeakably tragic but it is rather unique.”
More than 150 commercial hot air balloon companies operate in North America, he said.
In a statement on Facebook, Senator Ted Cruz offered support to the victims’ families and friends.
“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,” he said.
The Caldwell County sheriff’s office said it was working to determine the identities of those aboard.
More than a dozen police vehicles could be seen on pasture land at the site of the crash, in live video provided by Austin TV station KVUE.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community,” he said in a statement.