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In the nation's worst ballooning accident, 16 people died when the hot air balloon they were riding in struck power lines in Central Texas Saturday morning. The balloon burst into flames and fell into a pasture. Everyone aboard was killed. NPR's John Burnett says federal aviation investigators are treating it as a major accident.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The huge sightseeing balloon was floating over cornfields and cattle and farm-to-market roads in open country, south of big city Austin. It was red, white and blue with a big smiley face and Ray-Bans. The oblong gondola was carrying passengers who paid, according to the company's website, around $200 apiece to check a balloon flight off their bucket list. Then shortly after 8 a.m., something went terribly wrong. It struck high-voltage transmission lines that tower 15 stories over the farm fields. Eyewitness Margaret Wylie stepped out of her mobile home down the road to take the dogs out when she heard a strange noise.
MARGARET WYLIE: I think the pops that I heard was the balloon connecting with the lines. And by the time I looked that way, it was already on the ground. And then the fireball went up.
BURNETT: Wylie said she saw cattle in a nearby field run in terror when the orange ball rose into the air. First responders described the wicker basket on fire when they arrived on the scene.
WYLIE: I knew there were people dead, or at least somebody dead, when the coroner's vehicle came through.
BURNETT: An investigator confirmed the balloon is operated by Heart of Texas Balloon Rides of New Braunfels. The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation, which starts today according to on-scene spokesman Erik Grosof.
ERIK GROSOF: And to the families that may be watching us right now, we offer our thoughts and prayers to all of them for the loss. And this will be a difficult site for us to work through.
BURNETT: Difficult because there are no survivors, balloons don't have flight data recorders and it's not certain there are eyewitnesses to the actual collision, says a veteran balloon pilot who's monitoring the situation in Texas. Gondolas have gotten bigger as balloon rides have grown in popularity and operators learn they can make more revenue. In 2014, the NTSB recommended the industry should come under greater regulatory oversight. This was based on three balloon flights that made hard landings in gusty winds that seriously injured passengers.
Noting that balloons can now carry more than 20 riders, the agency said quote, "the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern." The Federal Aviation Administration declined to act, noting the recommended changes would not result in higher operational safety. Dean Carlton is president of the Balloon Federation of America. He said in an interview he expects the federal investigation will take more than a year. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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