LOCKHART, Texas (AP) – The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing all 16 people aboard, was arrested in Missouri in 2000 for driving while intoxicated, and the Better Business Bureau warned consumers about doing business with a balloon touring company he used to operate in that state.
Authorities have not publicly named anyone killed in the crash, saying it could take a while to identify the bodies. But Alfred “Skip” Nichols, 49, was identified as the pilot by his friend and roommate Alan Lirette, who said that Nichols was a good pilot.
“That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said, speaking to The Associated Press from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle, Texas. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there too.”
Authorities say the balloon, which was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture Saturday near Lockhart, which is about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio. Margaret Wylie, who lives a quarter-mile from the site, said she heard popping sounds and saw what looked “like a fireball going up.”
Although the baskets of many hot air balloons are limited to three to five people, some models used by sightseeing companies are much larger and can accommodate 20 people or more.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators are trying to determine what caused the crash. Board member Robert Sumwalt said the pilot was licensed to fly the balloon, but that it was too soon to say whether he had a criminal history.
A Missouri police officer, though, told the AP that Nichols was arrested there in 2000 on a felony driving-while-intoxicated charge. The case was resolved two years later when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor version of the charge.
The officer said that based on photographs, he is confident the man arrested in Missouri is the same man who piloted the Texas balloon. Nichols had lived in Missouri before moving to Texas. He was known as “Skip” in both places and owned a hot air balloon touring company in St. Louis County at the time, said the officer, who spoke to the AP on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about doing business with Nichols, the third time since 2000 that Nichols had gotten an unsatisfactory record for not responding to complaints. The paper quoted the BBB as saying Nichols was on probation in Missouri for the distribution, delivery or manufacturing of a controlled substance. When asked to respond, Nichols declined to comment.
There were reports of foggy weather in the area of the crash around the time of the flight. At least two of the passengers, Matt Rowan and his wife, Sunday Rowan, posted photos on social media of the preparations, the sunrise and themselves in the basket of the balloon a short time before the crash.
Ground crew members told investigators that they launched about 20 minutes after the expected 6:45 a.m. time. The balloon traveled about 8 miles before crashing, and the basket was found about three-quarters of a mile from the balloon itself.
NTSB investigators recovered 14 personal electronic devices, including cellphones, an iPad and three cameras, from the crash site. They will be sent to a lab in Washington for analysis.
Sumwalt, the NTSB member, said the immediate focus of the investigation would be gathering witness testimony, starting Monday with the ground crew.
“They’ve been busy trying to collect the maintenance records for us,” Sumwalt said of the crew.
Schmall reported from Fort Worth. Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno, Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Maria Fisher in Kansas City, Missouri, and Chad Day and Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.