1 year later, Caldwell Co. leaders remember hot air balloon crash

Family of those killed in the crash gathered at the site Saturday afternoon to pray. (Photo courtesy John Cyrier)

CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – Sunday marks the one year anniversary of the deadly hot air balloon crash in Caldwell County. On July 30, 2016, 16 people boarded the hot air balloon in San Marcos. And soon after they did, the balloon crashed in a filed just outside of Lockhart killing every person on board.

More than 60 family members visited the site Saturday afternoon leaving flowers, sharing memories and praying over the area where their loved ones died.

“It’s still extremely emotional for all of these families,” said Caldwell County Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey.

Ritchey said he remembers the day of the crash clearly. He was doing laundry when a call came out for a fully engulfed vehicle fire on Jolly Road.

“I didn’t think anything of it at all, car fires happen infrequently — but frequently enough to where they aren’t a concern,” said Ritchey.

It was only a few minutes later when he received a call saying the incident didn’t involve a vehicle and that more than a dozen were dead. Ritchey immediately left home and arrived at the scene just after eight in the morning.

“My first thought was the families of the victims because what I had observed, I knew there were a lot of individuals that were going to be involved that would have large extended families, children, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. So, my heart was immediately broken by seeing the level of fatality there,” said Ritchey.

News of the crash quickly spread, making national headlines as the deadliest hot air balloon crash in American history. Ritchey has worked a number of wildfires and floods in Caldwell County, but never anything like this.

“Training never involves a hot air balloon crashing into power lines, catching fire. You know, that’s not part of anybody’s training protocol per say,” said Ritchey. “This is the largest single loss of life in Caldwell County’s history, in fact in any jurisdiction a loss of life of this magnitude is just enormous and it would strain anyone’s resources.”

After the scene was cleared, Ritchey began researching everything he could about hot air balloons. “You know, you have to become an expert when these kind of things happen in your county,” he said.

Unfortunately what he found, he says was disappointing. “This was an accident waiting to happen. And then, when we learned that the NTSB has been pushing the FAA to change these rules about balloon pilots for years, you know we couldn’t believe that we were let down so much by our government,” said Ritchey.

Ritchey has joined the victims families in pushing for more regulations.

“They should look out for these pilots and they should look to make sure they meet the qualifications that are in the rules. The qualifications are out there. They are just voluntary for the pilots to inform the FAA and that’s not acceptable,” said Ritchey.

The NTSB said a toxicology report revealed the pilot “Skip” Nichols had multiple prescription medications in his system including Valium and Oxycodone.

In May, a petition was created by the families calling for stronger oversight over the hot air balloon industry. Just under 1,000 signatures were collected in 30 days before it was closed. Regardless, those pushing for changes say they will continue contacting their lawmakers.

The NTSB still has not released its final crash report. They are expected to meet in October and release some more facts. A full report on the crash will be published a few weeks later.

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