Search and recovery effort wraps up for hot air balloon crash

The search and recovery effort wrapped up at the crash scene Monday afternoon with the removal of the balloon canvas as well as what is left of the basket that carried 16 people Saturday morning.

Among those to die were Matt and Sunday Rowan. The couple was recently married and close friends who spoke to me by phone say they are devastated by the loss.

"He was always positive and make people smile and everyone liked him.," said Carlos Velasco.

The balloon was registered to Heart of Texas hot air balloon rides. Federal investigators hope images taken moments before the crash will help determine what caused the balloon to lose altitude. Weather conditions reportedly at the time had changed shortly after launch, from clear skies to low hanging clouds.

A spokesman with the FAA says their records show the balloon company had a hard landing involving injuries back in August of  2014.  But later in December of that same year, FOX 7 has been told there was another incident that came close to involving these same power lines.

Video recorded by Tiffany Gilman shows balloon owner Skip Nichols taking off on on what was suppose to be a romantic sunset flight. Gillman says in December of 2014 her then boyfriend was planning to ask her to marry him. On their trip there were ten other passengers, just five less than those who flew with Nichols on Saturday.

"I knew that was the same company.. I knew that that could've been me. I knew it was a small miracle that it wasn't us it could've been us, " said Gilman. According to Gilman, their flight was almost over when she says Nichols made a quick manuver to avoid power lines and the balloon dropped out of the sky. "We hit the ground real hard and at a 45 degree angle, it actually smashed my glasses. We skidded across probably 300 to 500 feet dragging across the ground." 

After coming to a stop, the passengers huddled together to stay warm.

"We got out of the balloon and I realized Skip was gone, he had run away to try to find the flight crew, the chase crew, that was going to be following us to pick up the balloon.. So we said ok we're just stranded in nowhere." Gilman says she called county authorities but because they didn't know where they were it took about three hours for a rescue party to arrive.

Investigators were not aware of the December crash involving Gilman but did say while the crash reported on August 3, 2014 involved the same company a different pilot and balloon where used at the time.

The balloon and basket involved in the crash Saturday is being taken to a secure facility in Dallas.

Investigators say the pilot, Skip Nichols, received a weather briefing the day before the accident, but it's unclear if he got an update Saturday morning. Before launching, the ground crew told the NTSB that they launched two small balloons to determine wind direction.

Investigators also said while they have not determined an official cause for the crash, the top flap on the balloon was open indicating a landing maneuver was being attempted. There were also abrasions found on the high voltage power lines about the crash site. Some were 30' long.

The only victim to officially be identified so far is Scott Douglas, the Justice of the Peace did not say where Douglas is from. The rest of the remains are being identified by a private pathologist in Lockhart who contracts with Caldwell County.

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