Company at center of hot air balloon crash suspends operations

Last Updated Aug 1, 2016 7:02 PM EDT

LOCKHART, Texas -- The company at the center of a fiery hot air balloon crash in Central Texas, that killed 16 people, has suspended operations.

Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides made the announcement of their Facebook page.

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CBS Dallas-Fort Worth

Authorities say the balloon, which was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture Saturday near Lockhart, about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio.

The pilot

New information is also emerging about the pilot of the hot air balloon. The pilot was able to keep flying despite having at least four convictions for drunken driving in Missouri and twice spending time in prison.

Whether the pilot's drinking habits had anything to do with the crash is unclear. A former girlfriend described Alfred "Skip" Nichols as a recovering alcoholic. She said he had been sober for at least four years and never piloted a balloon after drinking.

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Pilot Alfred "Skip" Nichols.

via Facebook

Nichols, who had been stripped of his driver's license at least twice, "couldn't drive a car but he could pilot a hot-air balloon," said an attorney who represented a passenger who sued Nichols in 2013. The passenger said she was hurt when Nichols crash-landed a balloon in the St. Louis suburbs.

The 49-year-old pilot also had a long history of customer complaints against his balloon-ride companies in Missouri and Illinois dating back to 1997. Customers reported to the Better Business Bureau that their rides would get canceled at the last minute and their fees never refunded.

Between late 1998 and 2001, the Better Business Bureau said it had received more than three dozen complaints against Manchester Balloon Voyages, leading it to twice warn the public about the company. Customers complained that canceled rides cost them $70 to $700.

In one case, a Catholic nun celebrating her 50th anniversary of service had lost $364 that she paid toward a ride for her and three friends.

Then in 2008, after logging eight more complaints, the bureau issued a third warning about Nichols, the pilot in the hot air balloon crash, who was then operating under the name of Air Balloon Sports. One complaint came from a woman who had paid $1,600 to take her family on a ride as a Christmas gift. The woman said Nichols would repeatedly cancel rides "even when the weather appeared calm and sunny," according to the bureau.

When pilots apply for a ballooning certificate with the Federal Aviation Administration, they are not required to disclose any prior drunken driving convictions, only drug convictions, said Balloon Federation of America spokesman Patrick Cannon, who called that a loophole in the law. He noted that the ballooning certificate specifically says not to include alcohol offenses involving a motor vehicle, as those are covered on the FAA's medical application. But balloon and hang-glider pilots, among others, are exempt from having to submit a medical application.

Nichols got his commercial license to pilot hot-air balloons in Missouri in July 1996. That predates his 2000 felony drug conviction. His first drunken driving conviction came in 1990. All pilots are supposed to notify the FAA within 60 days of a drug or alcohol conviction. However, Cannon said there is no oversight of that reporting.

Nichols pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in St. Louis County in 1990, then twice in 2002 and again in 2010, according to online court records.

He was also convicted of a drug crime in 2000 and spent about a year and a half in prison before being paroled. He was returned to prison in April 2010 after his parole was revoked because of his drunken driving conviction that year. He was paroled again in January 2012.

The former girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, said Nichols "did not fly when he wasn't supposed to. Having other people's lives at stake was Skip's primary concern."

Authorities have not publicly named anyone killed in Saturday's crash, saying it could take a while to identify the bodies. But Nichols was identified as the pilot by his friend and roommate Alan Lirette, who said Nichols was a good pilot.

Bartch described Nichols as lighthearted, a follower of the Grateful Dead whose dogs, Zappa and Joplin, were named after two of his favorite musicians.

She said that after she and Nichols broke up, they remained friends, and she helped him move to Texas in 2014. In order to keep his St. Louis business going, he started offering flights in Texas in the winter when St. Louis was rainy and cold.

FAA records indicate that the Texas company was involved in an accident with same balloon two years ago. On Aug. 3, 2014, the balloon made a hard landing in Kyle, Texas, when the pilot touched down abruptly to avoid striking a ground-crew vehicle that had been parked in the balloon's path. Two passengers were hurt.

It was not clear if Nichols was the pilot on that day.

In 2013, Nichols and his company settled a personal-injury lawsuit filed by the passenger who said she got hurt after the crash landing near St. Louis. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Carroll Brcic's said she and her husband and son used a Groupon coupon to purchase a balloon ride with Nichols on July 13, 2009. They took off from a school near House Springs, Missouri.

The family of three and five other passengers were in the air with Nichols when, the family contended, Nichols said he had run out of propane and the balloon began to fall.

Nichols contended that the balloon began to drop because of a lack of wind. Because it was drifting toward power lines, he said, he made what he called a controlled landing amid trees.

"He basically landed in the forest," Brcic's attorney, S. Lee Patton, said. "He called it a controlled landing. My client called it a crash."

Patton said the balloon dropped suddenly in the final 20 feet. Brcic injured her neck and back. Her husband and son were unharmed.

As part of the case, Patton said he learned from the Missouri Department of Revenue that Nichols' driver's license had been suspended for 10 years due to the 2002 drunken driving conviction. In a 2013 deposition, Nichols said he received a second 10-year license suspension in Missouri in 2010.

A member of the National Transportation Safety Board has criticized what he called a "disparity" in the FAA requirements for hot air balloon operators compared to airplane or helicopter pilots.

Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference Monday that hot air balloon pilots such as Nichols would not have been required to report any alcohol-related incidents, as the FAA requires of airplane pilots applying for a license.

Sumwalt says it appears Nichols was trying to land the balloon, based on the positioning of a vent and its attached cables. It appears the balloon may have dragged along power lines for about 30 feet.

In 2009, Mark and Carol Brcic said Nichols piloted their hot air balloon ride near Saint Louis. They told CBS News' Omar Villafranca that 20 minutes into the ride, the balloon crashed into the Mark Twain National Forest.

Nichols told the family he ran out of fuel. No one was seriously hurt. The family sued, and settled out of court.

"He shouldn't have been flying and we wanted to make him accountable for it," Mark Brcic said.

The victims

Profiles of the 16 victims in the crash are beginning to emerge, and include couple Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens.

For the past 24-years, Tresa was a teacher at Tiger Land Pre-School in Katy, CBS affiliate KHOU reported.

"Tresa is the lady that always had an answer for everything," explained Jane Toevs, director of Tiger Land. "She just loves all of them [children]. She loves them. She adored them. The parents see her as not only a mother but a grandmother too."

Her husband, Joe, was also very well-known at the school. Cheryl Myer, assistant director of Tiger Land, explained that even the he had a full-time job, he was always willing to help out, KHOU reported.

"If something needed to be fixed here... Tresa would say, 'Hey! I'll get Joe. Joe will be here," said Myer.

"He's a very hard working, caring, loving person," added Toevs.

Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens leave behind three children and four grandchildren. One of their daughters is also a teacher at the school.

Holly Huckabee was a close friend of Joe and Tresa Shafer, and a former teacher. The three were taking the balloon ride together when it crashed, CBS affiliate KHOU reported.

School officials say Huckabee also leaves behind at least one daughter, who is also a teacher.

Matt and Sunday Rowan, both 34, were married in February 2016.

According to Matt Rowan's brother, Josh, the couple texted family and posted pictures on social media as they prepared to take the balloon ride.

Mother Lorilee and daughter Paige Brabson were also among the victims of the balloon crash.

Lorilee and Paige were both from Colorado Springs, CBS affiliate KKTV reported.

Both mother and daughter attended Harrison High School, but Lorilee graduated from Sierra High School according to family members -- and moved to Texas three years ago.

Paige had a 11-month-old daughter. A coworker set up a page to raise money for the family.

Brian and Tressie Neill were among those killed in the balloon crash, according to a GoFundMe page. Brian and Tressie Neill were from San Antonio, Texas, and were married for 23 years.

For their anniversary, Brian surprised Tressie with a trip to watch the sunrise by hot air balloon, something they have both always talked about doing and he had planned for months, according to the GoFundMe page.

Brian and Tressie are survived by their two daughters who are 20 and 16 years old.