Hot Air Balloon Hit Power Lines Before Crashing South of Austin

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KYLE, Texas — The hot air balloon that went down in Kyle, Texas on Saturday hit power lines as it was falling, according to NTSB investigators.

All 16 people aboard the balloon — 15 passengers and the pilot — were killed in Saturday’s crash in pasture land south of Austin.

It’s not clear what part of the balloon hit the lines, spokesman Robert Sumwalt said. It’s also unclear whether the fire that broke out on the balloon happened before or after the collision, Sumwalt said.

The investigation will look at three main factors to determine the cause of the crash: the balloon, its operators and the environment, Sumwalt said.

He said investigators are “trying to nail down as best we can” whether fog was a factor. Though it was foggy after the accident, Sumwalt said they don’t yet know whether there was fog at the time of the crash.

Sixteen victims

Friends of some of the victims identified them on Sunday. They include the pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols, and newlyweds Matt and Sunday Rowan.

The Rowans got married in February, said Brent Jones, the father of Sunday’s 5-year-old son, Jett. “Sunday was a very social person,” Jones said. “They have hundreds and hundreds of friends.”

Alan Lirette, the ground crew supervisor for the balloon operator, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, described Nichols as his “best friend, boss and roommate.”

“I knew him to be a safe, competent pilot,” balloon pilot Philip Bryant said. “He has done this for a very long time.”

Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens were also killed, said family friend Tricia James. James said she worked with Tresa Owens for more than two decades at a preschool in Katy, about two hours away from where the balloon trip began.

“Joe worked hard (to) provide for his family and was always willing to lend an extra hand to anyone in need. Tresa had a long-time career at TigerLand Preschool and made an amazing difference in the lives of the hundreds of children she cared for, their families and also her co-workers and friends. So quick to offer up a prayer or a friendly greeting, they will forever be missed by the people who loved them,” James posted.

The NTSB said the identities of all the victims would be made public later by local authorities.

Electronic devices recovered

The FBI has found 14 personal electronic devices from those aboard the balloon, Sumwalt said. They include cell phones, one iPad, and three cameras.

The cameras, he said, are destroyed, but he said he hopes NTSB lab technicians can recover the images.

“They have been able to do miraculous things” in the past to recover information from destroyed and damaged devices, Sumwalt said.

Nichols used an iPad to navigate and a cell phone to communicate with the ground crew.

Some of those aboard posted Twitter images that investigators will examine as well, Sumwalt said.

A sunrise trip

The passengers assembled for the ride at 5:45 a.m. in a Walmart parking lot and rode in a van to the launch site, Sumwalt said.

The planned launch time for the one-hour flight was at sunrise, at 6:49 a.m., but Sumwalt said for some reason it was delayed.

The utility company responsible for the lines reported they were tripped at 7:42 a.m. The first 911 call came in approximately one minute later, Sumwalt said.

The gondola, the basket that carries passengers, came to rest below the power lines, in a field, he said. The actual balloon, called an envelope, landed 3/4 mile away.

Saturday’s crash is the most fatal hot air balloon crash in U.S. history, according to NTSB figures.