Fiery crash of hot-air balloon kills 16 in central Texas

The partial frame of a hot air balloon is visible above a crop field as investigators comb the wreckage of a Saturday morning accident that left 16 people feared dead.
The partial frame of a hot air balloon is visible above a crop field as investigators comb the wreckage of a Saturday morning accident that left 16 people feared dead.PHOTO: REUTERS
The partial frame of a hot air balloon is visible above a crop field as investigators comb the wreckage of a Saturday morning accident that left 16 people feared dead.
The partial frame of a hot air balloon is visible above a crop field as investigators comb the wreckage of a Saturday morning accident that left 16 people feared dead.PHOTO: REUTERS
 Authorities investigate the site of a hot air balloon accident in Maxwell, Texas on July 30, 2016.
Authorities investigate the site of a hot air balloon accident in Maxwell, Texas on July 30, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

AUSTIN, Texas (REUTERS) – A hot-air balloon burst into flames over central Texas on Saturday (July 30) after apparently striking power lines and plunged into a field, killing all 16 people aboard in one of the deadliest such accidents on record, police and eyewitnesses said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the fiery crash occurred at about 7.40am (8.40pm Singapore time) near Lockhart, a town about 50km south of Austin, the Texas capital.

The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said 16 people were believed to have been aboard the balloon and that there were no survivors. The Texas Department of Public Safety also confirmed that 16 people were dead.

Emergency responders in Texas said the basket portion of the hot-air balloon, which carries the passenger and crew, had caught fire.

Aerial television footage from the aftermath of the accident showed remnants of the red, white and blue balloon, adorned with a large, yellow smiley face wearing sunglasses, lying flattened at the crash site.

The National Transportation Safety Board offered no details on what may have caused the accident, which occurred on a clear day. But a spokesman at the scene said teams from that agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were being dispatched to help in evidence-gathering.

The spokesman said the balloon probably belonged to a tour group that offers rides to paying passengers.

Margaret Wylie, an area resident, told reporters she believed that before the balloon crashed, it hit high-power lines, which caused popping sounds like a gun going off.

“It went up like a big fireball,” she told reporters, adding the balloon’s chase crew, which follows the aircraft on the ground to assist with its landing, arrived on the scene after the sheriff’s department.

The crash of the balloon was the deadliest on record in the Western Hemisphere, said Jeff Chatterton, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of North America.

“There are thousands of balloons that go up every year,” he said. “This is unspeakably tragic but it is rather unique.”

More than 150 commercial hot-air balloon companies operate in North America, he said.

More than a dozen police vehicles could be seen on pasture land at the site of the crash.

Lockhart, a town of about 13,000 people near state parks, is home to a variety of barbecue restaurants considered to be among the best in the state.

The accident occurred about three years after 19 people, mostly Asian and European tourists, were killed in a hot-air balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

A year before that incident, a hot-air balloon burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand, killing all 11 people on board.