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Published On: Tue, Aug 2nd, 2016

Texas hot air balloon crash: Victims remembered as pilot, Skip Nichols’ history questioned

Family, friends and concerned citizens paid respects to the victims of the nation’s worst hot air balloon crash in history, taking to social media with their thoughts and prayers. Pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols, operator of Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, is fully being investigated for his responsibility and role in the death of all sixteen passengers.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Monday that it was “pretty suspicious” that the balloon was found directly under power lines, but he said it had not been determined whether the power lines caused the crash or if the balloon was already on fire when it hit them.

“We are trying to put together a timeline for exactly how this tragic event unfolded,” Sumwalt told ABC News.  “We’re making good progress but we still have a long way to go.”

Global Dispatch 200x119The 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 actual balloon (also called the envelope) 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.

Also now in question is Nichols’ history of drunk driving arrests and time in prison.

Sumwalt said the ground crew will all be interviewed. One remaining question is why the flight was delayed 20 minutes. Information from cellphones and cameras retrieved from the crash site also was being reviewed.

“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.

All 16 people aboard died Saturday when the balloon crashed in a field 30 miles south of Austin.

Families and loved ones of friends were memorializing the victims online. A YouTube video pays tribute to Lorilee Brabson and her daughter, Paige. A gofundme page was set up by Paige’s grandmother, Patricia Morgan, for Paige’s 11-month-old daughter.

“Unfortunately, Paige was uninsured,” the page says. “She was a hard and dedicated worker at La Hacienda restaurant in San Antonio. In lieu of flowers any donations will go to help assist the family and her daughter.”

Another gofundme page memorializing Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens seeks money for their funerals.

“They adored their children and grandchildren, and loved nothing more than spending time with them,” the page says. “Joe worked hard to provide for his family and was always willing to lend an extra hand to anyone in need. Tresa had a long time career at TigerLand Preschool and made an amazing difference in the lives of the hundreds of children she cared for, their families and also her co-workers and friends.”

Brian and Tressie Neill are remembered on a gofundme page also seeking funeral expenses. The page says they were married for 23 years and that the trip was a surprise anniversary present from Brian to Tressie.

“While being in the air, Brian had sent his brother, Curtis, a picture from the air and stated, ‘can you see our reflection in  the clouds?'” the page says. “Both believers in Jesus, we know both of their souls are now with the Lord, and our family will forever see their reflection in the clouds.”

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About the Author

- Roxanne "Butter" Bracco began with the Dispatch as Pittsburgh Correspondent, but will be providing reports and insights from Washington DC, Maryland and the surrounding region. Contact Roxie aka "Butter" at [email protected] ATTN: Roxie or Butter Bracco

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