Balloon likely hit power lines before deadly crash

Will Weissert
Associated Press

Lockhart, Texas — It appears a hot air balloon made contact with high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture in Central Texas, killing all 16 on board, according to federal authorities who are investigating the worst such disaster in U.S. history.

A power line was tripped at 7:42 a.m. Saturday, and the first call to 911 came a minute later, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said during a news conference. One witness described to The Associated Press seeing a “fireball” near the power lines.

The NTSB will look at all factors that might have played a role, including weather, but is concentrating on gathering “perishable evidence,” Sumwalt said. “This wreckage will not be here more than another day or so,” he said.

The pilot was Skip Nichols, 49, said Alan Lirette, who identified Nichols as his best friend, roommate and boss. Lirette said he helped launch the balloon, which was carrying a total of 16 people, none of them children. The NTSB has not yet publicly identified the pilot or the passengers.

The passengers met the balloon operator in the San Marcos Wal-Mart parking lot at about 5:45 a.m. Saturday, and traveled to Fentress Texas Airpark.

The balloon traveled about 8 miles from takeoff to crash, and the basket was found about three-quarters of a mile from the balloon material itself.

Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law and the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement that NTSB and medical professionals have said identification of the victims will be “a long process.”

An online Federal Aviation Administration database said an Alfred G. Nichols of Chesterfield, Missouri, was medically certified to fly in 1996 and was rated a commercial pilot of lighter-than-air balloons on July 14, 2010.

Lirette said Nichols went by the first name of Skip. Lirette would not answer specific questions about the balloon’s launch or its crash.

“That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said of Nichols. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press and I want a positive image there too.”

Wendy Bartch, a former girlfriend of Nichols, told the Austin American-Statesman that he was cautious about keeping passengers safe, and had been involved with hot air balloons for about two decades.