Federal investigators began arriving in central Texas on Saturday to investigate the crash of a hot air balloon with at least 16 passengers on board.

“It does not appear at this time that there were any survivors of the crash,” the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement posted on Facebook.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford told the Associated Press that the balloon was found in an isolated pasture near Lockhart, Tex., about 7:40 a.m.

Lockhart, a popular weekend getaway known for its barbecue, skydiving and ballooning, is about 30 miles south of Austin.

Authorities initially responded to a call about a possible vehicle accident, but upon arrival, “it was apparent that the reported fire was the basket portion of a hot air balloon,” the sheriff’s office statement noted.

Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told the AP that his agency knows “very, very little right now” about how the crash occurred.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a statement asking for Texans to pray for the victims of the crash: “Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences for all those who have been affected by today’s heartbreaking tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community. The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost.”

Though isolated, the crash site is below “a row of massive high-capacity transmission lines about 4 to 5 stories tall,” but authorities have not commented on whether the overhead lines played a role in the disaster, the AP reported.

Margaret Wylie, who lives near the crash site, told the Austin American Statesman that she popping noises early Saturday morning. When she stepped outside on her porch she heard a “whooshing noise and saw a fireball go up as high as the lowest power line.”

“The next thing I knew,” she told the paper, “I saw a big fireball went up and you’re just praying that whoever is in there got out on time.”

Erik Grosof, Assistant to the Director-Operations for the NTSB, told the Statesman that investigators are expecting the arrival of specialists from the agency’s “Go Team.”

He said that the FBI’s office in San Antonio will assist in investigators collecting evidence.

“It’s much like a crime scene,” Grosof told the paper. “You only get one chance at it so you have got to do it right.”

“The purpose of the Safety Board Go Team is simple and effective: Begin the investigation of a major accident at the accident scene, as quickly as possible, assembling the broad spectrum of technical expertise that is needed to solve complex transportation safety problems.”
“The team can number from three or four to more than a dozen specialists from the Board’s headquarters staff in Washington, D.C., who are assigned on a rotational basis to respond as quickly as possible to the scene of the accident. Go Teams travel by commercial airliner or government aircraft depending on circumstances and availability. Such teams have been winging to catastrophic airline crash sites for more than 35 years. They also routinely handle investigations of certain rail, highway, marine and pipeline accidents.”
“Most Go Team members do not have a suitcase pre-packed because there’s no way of knowing whether the accident scene will be in Florida or Alaska, but they do have tools of their trade handy — carefully selected wrenches, screwdrivers and devices peculiar to their specialty. All carry flashlights, tape recorders, cameras, and lots of extra tape and film.”

Before Saturday, the highest number of deaths in a single hot air balloon crash was six and occurred in 1993 in Colorado, according to NTSB statistics cited by CNN.

Placing the gravity of the accident into context, CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh said Saturday’s death toll equaled the total number of deaths in hot air balloon accidents over the previous decade.

She said she expects that authorities will begin to piece the incident together by looking at the debris field, reviewing the balloon’s maintenance records and investigating the pilot.
“Was this a mechanical issue with a hot air balloon or was this pilot error?” she said. “If there’s any video out there, they’ll want to get their hands on that, they’ll want to talk to witnesses.”

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