The Texas Department of Public Safety has confirmed 16 people are dead after a hot air balloon crash in Lockhart early Saturday morning, the deadliest balloon accident since the National Transportation Safety Board began keeping records.
Officials said the Caldwell County Sheriff's Office responded to a call regarding a possible vehicle accident in the 700 block of Jolly Road around 7:45 a.m. When first responders arrived at the scene, they found the basket portion of a hot air balloon on fire.
Images captured at the scene show the site of the crash directly underneath large power lines. Initial indications were that the balloon caught fire in mid-air, hit high-voltage power lines and fell to the ground. Witnesses told News 8 they heard explosions as the balloon approached.
The pilot who was flying the balloon was Skip Nichols, News 8 confirmed. Nichols, who lists a title of “Chief Pilot” on his Facebook page, is also the owner of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
The company is not accredited by the BBB and has a D+ rating
The NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration have been notified and the NTSB will be in charge of the investigation. No names of any fatalities will be released until next of kin has been notified.
Governor 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 Senator 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.”
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 WFAA'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.