The hot air balloon that crashed, leaving all 16 people on board dead, likely hit power lines before it plummeted to the ground in Central Texas, the National Transportation Board said Sunday.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said it’s not clear whether the fire that sparked on the aircraft ignited before or after the balloon hit the electrical wires near the town of Lockhart Saturday.
He said the balloon material was discovered about three-quarters of a mile from the basket, and all of the victims’ bodies were found near the basket. The balloon had traveled about 8 miles from its starting point before falling to the pasture below, he said.
Sumwalt said earlier Sunday that investigators were looking at three things, as is often the case in aerial accidents: the human, the machine and the environment. He said it was cloudy at the time of takeoff, which was delayed about 20 minutes, but could not say if weather played a role in the crash.
Investigators have gathered 14 of the victims’ recording devices — including cellphones, cameras and an iPad — in hopes of piecing together what doomed the balloon, Sumwalt said. He asked that any witnesses also turn over any videos or pictures they may have taken before the crash.
Gathering other evidence would be a sort of race against time he noted, since investigators were delayed by weather in getting to the site, and most physical evidence will be tarnished within days. “The wreckage will not be here more than another day or so,” he said.
“We’re looking at operation of balloon, pilot, and company that operated the balloon,” Sumwalt said, identifying the operating company as Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides.
He said the pilot was certified to fly hot air balloons, and the NTSB would be looking at the company’s inspection records.
Sumwalt said at least one other accident involving the type of balloon that went down Saturday has been recorded since 2011. In all, the NTSB has recorded 60 accidents — six of them fatal — since 2011.
Saturday’s crash is the deadliest of its type in the U.S.
The Caldwell County Sheriff’s said identifying the 16 victims would be “a long process,” but the brother of a 34-year-old and his wife said they were on the balloon. Joshua Rowan told NBC News that his brother, Matt Rowan, 34, and his sister-in-law, Sunday Rowan were on the doomed flight and would be “incredibly missed.”
The couple had been recently married, and Matt Rowan had just started a new job as an army hospital burns trial unit chief. “He was doing some amazing work and research. He felt like a lot of the stuff he was doing would have benefits for soldier and other service members who had been injured by burns,” Joshua Rowan said.
The couple from San Antonio “was so happy together,” Rowan said. “They were trying to a grow their family. It makes the timing of it even more horrific.”
Matt Rowan sent a text message to a friend on his volleyball team Friday night saying he’d be late to a tournament because he was taking a hot air balloon ride that he didn’t expect would interfere with the game because it had “been rescheduled a dozen times.” Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides has a Better Business Bureau rating of D+ and a Yelp rating of 1.5 stars, mostly due to complaints about canceled and rescheduled flights.
The last text Rowan sent to his teammates was a picture from the air. They posted a picture of the team after the tournament, with a space saved for Rowan.
In April 2014, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration bolster ballooning regulations in the U.S., warning of “the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident.”
The FAA at the time rejected the suggestions, saying ballooning risks were low.
Sumwalt on Sunday said the FAA’s response was deemed by the NTSB to be “unacceptable.”
Three people were killed in May of 2014 when a hot air balloon hit a power line, exploded and crashed in eastern Virginia.
Lynn Lunsford, a spokeswoman for the FAA, told NBC News on Sunday that it was “too early to say” whether the FAA would reconsider the NTSB recommendations “until we’ve had a chance to gather and examine the evidence in this particular case.”