(LOCKHART, Texas) — Authorities confirmed Sunday that 16 people were killed in the fiery crash of a hot air balloon in Central Texas, saying it will take “a long process” to identify the victims of the worst such disaster in U.S. history.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board did not identify the company operating the balloon or its pilot involved in Saturday’s crash, two officials familiar with the investigation said it was run by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.
The pilot was Skip Nichols, 49, according to Alan Lirette, who identified Nichols as his boss, best friend and roommate. Lirette said he helped launch the balloon, which was carrying a total of 16 people, none of them children.
The balloon fell in a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin. The crash site was near a row of high-tension power lines, and aerial photos showed an area of scorched land underneath. One witness described seeing a “fireball” near the power lines.
Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law and the Texas Department of Public Safety said it will be “a long process” to identify the 16 victims.
Speaking to the AP from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle, 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, who also owned Missouri-based Air Balloon Sports LLC. “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 “a good pilot and loved people,” was cautious about keeping passengers safe, and had been involved with hot air balloons for about two decades.
Nichols’ Facebook page identifies himself as the chief pilot of Heart of Texas. The operation does not appear to be registered with the state of Texas.