LOCKHART, Texas — A hot-air balloon carrying at least 16 people caught on fire and crashed in Central Texas on Saturday, and there did not appear to be any survivors, authorities said.
They would not confirm the exact number of deaths, but Lynn Lunsford with the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed at least 16 people were aboard, and the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said it appeared no one survived.
If 16 did, in fact, die, it would be the one of the worst such disasters, possibly the worst in U.S. history. The deadliest such disaster happened in February 2013, when a balloon flying over Luxor, Egypt, caught fire and plunged 1,000 feet to the ground, crashing into a sugar cane field and killing at least 19 foreign tourists.
Saturday’s crash happened at about 7:40 a.m. in a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin.
Authorities have not said where the balloon was based out of or which company was flying it, though Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel C. Law told The Associated Press it’s the kind of situation where people can walk up and buy a ticket, unlike an airplane, which would have a list of names.
The land near the crash site is mostly farmland, with corn crops and grazing cattle. Cutting through that farmland is a row of massive high-capacity transmission lines about four to five stories tall. The site of the crash appears to be right below the overhead lines, though authorities haven’t provided further details about what happened.
Margaret Wylie lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site and told the AP she was letting her dog out Saturday morning when she heard a “pop, pop, pop.”
“I looked around, and it was like a fireball going up,” Wylie said, noting that the fireball was located under large power lines and almost high enough to reach the bottom of them.
Wylie, who called 911, said the weather seemed clear and that she frequently sees hot air balloons in the area.
Erik Grosof of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a news conference that the agency has deemed it a major accident, and a full-bore investigation will begin Sunday when more federal officials arrive.
Robert Sumwalt, who will head the NTSB’s crash investigation team, said he was studying the board’s recommendations to the FAA based on previous hot air balloon crashes. Sumwalt, who spoke to the AP while waiting to board a plane to Texas, said the team was still trying to gather basic information about the accident.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked for “all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost.”