Federal investigators began arriving in central Texas today to investigate the crash of a hot air balloon with at least 16 passengers on board.
“It does not appear at this time that there were any survivors of the crash,” the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement posted on Facebook.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford told the Associated Press that the balloon was found in an isolated pasture near Lockhart, Texas, about 7:40 a.m.
Lockhart, a popular weekend getaway known for its barbecue, is about 30 miles south of Austin.
Authorities initially responded to a call about a possible vehicle accident, but upon arrival, “it was apparent that the reported fire was the basket portion of a hot air balloon,” the sheriff’s office statement noted.
Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told the AP that his agency knows “very, very little right now” about how the crash occurred.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a statement asking for Texans to pray for the victims of the crash: “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.”
Though isolated, the crash site is below “a row of massive high-capacity transmission lines about 4 to 5 stories tall,” but authorities have not commented on whether the overhead lines played a role in the disaster, the AP reported.
Before Saturday, the highest number of deaths in a single hot air balloon crash was six and occurred in 1993 in Colorado, according to NTSB statistics cited by CNN.
Placing the gravity of the accident into context, CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh said Saturday’s death toll equaled the total number of deaths in hot air balloon accidents over the previous decade.
She said she expects that authorities will begin to piece the incident together by looking at the debris field, reviewing the balloon’s maintenance records and investigating the pilot.
“Was this a mechanical issue with a hot air balloon or was this pilot error?” she said. “If there’s any video out there, they’ll want to get their hands on that, they’ll want to talk to witnesses.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Peter Holley