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Story highlights

The top vent on the balloon was open, indicating the pilot was trying to land, NTSB official says

There's no indication weather or maintenance issues caused the carsh, NTSB says

(CNN) —  

Evidence shows a pilot may have been trying to land when a hot air balloon crashed over the weekend in Texas and killed all 16 people on board, an NTSB official said Monday.

At 7:27 a.m. Saturday, pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols used an app to send a position update to a crew following the balloon in a vehicle, normally an indication he planned to land, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at an afternoon news conference. Then they lost contact.

“When the ground crew could not locate the balloon or had no more communications with the pilot, they drove around for about an hour trying to call the pilot, trying to call phone numbers of passengers they had from the manifest,” Sumwalt said.

How safe are hot air balloons?

The balloon apparently hit power lines in a field near Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin, around 7:45 a.m., the NTSB said. The gondola burned but the envelope – the actual balloon – was found nearby with the top vent open and cables positioned to open the vent, Sumwalt said.

“The vent being open would be consistent with the pilot trying to land,” he said.

The towers holding the power lines were about 140 feet high, he said, and the power lines showed about 30 feet of abrasions, where the balloon may have made contact, Sumwalt said.

But it’s still not clear what caused the balloon to hit the power lines and whether a fire that broke out on the balloon happened before the collision or was caused by the power lines, the NTSB said.

01:29 - Source: CNN
Notable hot air balloon crashes

Ground crew members said there were patches of fog that morning, Sumwalt said, but the weather was clear at the launch site, a nearby airfield. There’s no evidence maintenance problems caused the crash of the balloon, owned by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Ride, he said.

The NTSB found independent records the balloon passed an annual inspection in September 2015, he said. No current log book has been found, but it may have been on board the balloon and destroyed in the crash, he said.

Sumwalt said Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides had a previous crash with a balloon.

FAA records show the balloon “made a hard landing” on August 3, 2014, in a church soccer field in Kyle, Texas, injuring two female passengers. The pilot had to “land short” to avoid striking the retrieval team vehicle, which was parked in the path of the balloon, records show.

Records didn’t name the pilot, but Sumwalt said it was not Nichols and the hot air balloon was not the one that crashed Saturday.

Ground crew interviewed

The NTSB expected to finish collecting what’s left of the debris, including the charred gondola and the balloon itself, by the end of the day Monday, Sumwalt said.

Officials interviewed the three ground crew members Monday, he said. They will focus on Alan Lirette, as he not only worked for the pilot but was also the pilot’s roommate.

The investigation will look at three main factors to determine the cause of the crash: the balloon, its operators and the environment, Sumwalt said.

The hot air balloon company suspended operations Monday.

“It is with extraordinarily heavy hearts that we announce the suspension of operations at Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides,” the company said on its website.

“The horrific crash near Lockhart, Texas, has taken from us our owner and chief pilot, Skip Nichols, as well as 15 passengers, all of whom saw what was planned to be a special day turn into an unspeakable tragedy.”

Newlyweds, parents among those killed

Friends of some of the victims identified them Sunday. They include the pilot, Nichols, and newlyweds Matt and Sunday Rowan.

The Rowans got married in February, said Brent Jones, the father of Sunday’s 5-year-old son, Jett. “Sunday was a very social person,” Jones said. “They have hundreds and hundreds of friends.”

Alfred "Skip" Nichols
From Facebook
Alfred "Skip" Nichols

Sunday Rowan bought the balloon flight for her husband as a birthday gift last year and it had taken them a while to schedule it, Jones said.

“Sunday was messaging her mom before getting on the balloon. Soon after takeoff, she stopped all communication,” he said.

“It’s hard, but I want everyone to understand how great our lives were together and how amazing these two people are.”

Lirette, the ground crew supervisor for the balloon operator, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, described Nichols as his “best friend, boss and roommate.”

Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens were also killed, said family friend Tricia James, who set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for their funeral.

James told CNN she worked with Tresa Owens for more than two decades at a preschool in Katy, about two hours away from where the balloon trip began.

“They adored their children and grandchildren, and loved nothing more than spending time with them,” James wrote on the fundraising site.

On Monday, CPS Energy said it’s employee Tressie Neill and her husband, Brian, were among the dead, according to CNN affiliate KSAT. Neill had worked for the company for almost 25 years.

“Our focus is on Tressie’s daughters and her family and we have reached out to offer and provide support in any way we can,” the company said.

The NTSB said the identities of all the victims would be made public later by local authorities.

Electronic devices recovered

The FBI has found 14 personal electronic devices from those aboard the balloon, Sumwalt said. They include cell phones, one iPad, and three cameras.

The cameras, he said, are destroyed, but he said he hopes NTSB lab technicians can recover the images.

Nichols used an iPad to navigate and a cell phone to communicate with the ground crew.

Some of those aboard posted Twitter images that investigators will examine as well, Sumwalt said.