The newlyweds of just six months boarded the big, rectangular basket early Saturday morning, anticipating a hot-air-balloon ride that would float them high over the pasture lands of rural Lockhart, Tex., just as the sun peaked above the horizon.
It was a birthday present from her to him, according to reports, one that Matt and Sunday Rowan, both 34, had had a hard time scheduling.
Saturday finally fit.
The couple met the Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides pilot and 13 other passengers in a Walmart parking lot at 5:45 a.m., officials said, then traveled to an airpark for their 6:45 a.m. departure. The crew was delayed by about 20 minutes.
Soon they took off, dangling below a red, white and blue balloon, with large yellow, smiling faces.
At 7:29 a.m., Matt Rowan sent a message to his volleyball teammates, who were playing at a tournament he was set to join later that morning, reported NBC News, after the balloon returned safely to the ground. It was a snapshot from the air of green sprawling fields and a hazy, pinkish purple skyline.
His wife, Sunday, had spent the morning sending messages to her mother.
Then communication stopped.
The first 911 call came in at 7:43 a.m., a minute after the first power line tripped. A witness told CNN that she heard loud pops, then saw a “big ball of fire.” Aerial photos show a line of high-tension power lines towering over a patch of scorched earth. The collapsed balloon — smiley-face-side up — was found splayed in a field nearly a mile from the basket.
Matt Rowan never showed up for his volleyball game.
All 16 people onboard died, officials said, in a crash being called the deadliest of its kind in U.S. history. The family members of the Rowans were some of the first to confirm the couple was onboard — alongside a preschool teacher, her husband and a mother-daughter duo celebrating a belated Mother’s Day — as officials scrambled to notify families, a process made more difficult because there was no official participant list to ease the confirmation process, the Associated Press reported.
On Sunday, Josh Rowan, Matt Rowan’s brother, wrote on Facebook that their family had spent the day talking to numerous media outlets, “trying to tell their story.”
“We hope that we have done them justice,” Josh Rowan wrote.
The couple were friends in high school but only married in February, CNN reported. In a photo posted on Sunday Rowan’s Facebook on July 22, the couple, her 5-year-old son and the boy’s father, Brent Jones, stand together in matching red collared shirts, smiling as a family. In the comments, friends praise the group for coming together for Jett.
“We all just love Jett and each other,” Sunday Rowan replied.
She added an emoji heart.
Sunday was “obsessed with her son’s happiness,” Jones told Dallas television station Fox 4.
“It’s hard,” Jones told CNN. “But I want everyone to understand how great our lives were together and how amazing these two people are.”
Sunday was social and had many friends, Jones told CNN. She worked at Crazy8, a children’s clothing store, according to her Facebook page. Matt Rowan had just taken a new job as the burns trial-unit chief at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, his brother, Josh Rowan, told NBC News.
“He was doing some amazing work and research,” Josh Rowan told NBC. “He felt like a lot of the stuff he was doing would have benefits for soldiers and other service members who had been injured by burns.”
Sunday Rowan bought the tickets for the hot-air balloon for her husband about a year ago, her parents told Fox 4. The trip had been canceled many times, they said, but on Friday night, Sunday Rowan texted her mother to say that the weather for Saturday was suitable and that they would finally be able to go.
“She was beyond excited,” Janis Stewart, Sunday Rowan’s mother, told the TV station.
Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides has a D+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, based on a handful of complaints, and on Yelp, some criticized the company for being unreliable with trip scheduling and often postponing flights. But weather is a key component of hot-air-balloon safety, and guidance is clear when it comes to nearby rain, thunderstorms and rising heat.
On the morning of the crash, Sunday had been posting photos and videos of their flight online, not uncommon for the “social media butterfly,” her mother said.
Abruptly, the posts stopped.
“When I didn’t hear from her, I thought it was strange,” Stewart said. She checked the news and saw there had been a balloon accident.
“I knew something was terribly wrong,” she said.
Stewart told Fox 4 that she called the balloon company hoping for official confirmation but was told to call back Monday.
Sarah Nichols, who has the same last name as the pilot killed in the crash, wrote:
“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.
At this time, no information has been shared with us by the investigating authorities; it is for that reason we are unable to speak with the families of the passengers, but we do want you to know that we are with you in spirit and prayer and share your grief. There are simply no words to express our profound sadness at this event that has taken away so many of our loved ones.”
Nichols, 49, was described as “a good pilot” by Wendy Bartch, a former girlfriend, who said he “loved people,” the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Alan Lirette, who identified himself as Nichols’ best friend, roommate and boss, told the AP he helped the pilot launch the balloon Saturday morning, but he would not discuss the crash further.
“That’s the only thing I want to talk about is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there, too.”
One of Nichols’ neighbors, Jimmy Alvarez, told ABC affiliate WFAA 8 that the pilot could be seen floating across the neighborhood in his balloon and heard talking passionately about the business.
“Just a really sad day,” Alvarez told WFAA 8.
Among the victims were Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens, according to a GoFundMe page created by a woman named Tricia James to help with funeral expenses. The couple adored their children and grandchildren, James wrote, and each other.
“Joe worked hard to provide for his family and was always willing to lend an extra hand to anyone in need,” according to the GoFundMe page. “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. So quick to offer up a prayer or a friendly greeting, they will forever be missed by the people who loved them. Their smiles, hugs, and laughs will be never forgotten.”
Lorilee Brabson was on the hot-air balloon with her daughter, Paige, a Mother’s Day gift they had planned several weeks ago but were forced to reschedule, like the Rowans, because of weather, reported KKTV 11 News. Originally from Colorado Springs, the mother and daughter moved to Texas three years ago.
Jason Pino, Lorilee Brabson’s brother, told the TV station that she called the flight her “bucket list balloon ride.”
And just like Sunday Rowan, Lorilee was posting photos and videos of the ride Saturday morning, until she wasn’t.
Paige leaves behind an 11-month-old daughter, KKTV 11 News reported.
“A VERY sweet friend of mine from Texas and her oldest daughter passed away yesterday morning in the hot air balloon accident over Texas,” a woman named Britney Reeves Hedin wrote on Facebook about Brabson and her daughter. “My heart is completely broken for their family. Her daughter has a very young little girl and life was just starting for them.”
Authorities told the Associated Press that identifying the victims will be “a long process” and said they will release the names as the investigation progresses.
In his Facebook post last Sunday night, Josh Rowan, Matt’s brother, wrote that they tried their best to give a full recounting of the newlywed couple’s story but that “the beautiful tapestry of their lives is written on all of our hearts.”
He continued: “Life is precious and short. Hold everyone you love extra tight tonight, be quick to forgive, and cherish every moment. We love each of you. God grant us the peace to get through this.”
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