LOCKHART, Texas - Officials in Texas say the final death toll from the hot air balloon crash in Central Texas is 16 people.
Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law and the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed the number of victims in a statement Sunday. The balloon crashed Saturday morning. Officials had said until midday Sunday they were attempting to determine the exact number of victims as they began their probe of the crash site.
The statement says that the National Transportation Safety Board and medical professionals have said identification of the victims will be "a long process."
Authorities have not provided the reason why the balloon crashed or identifications of those on board. Alan Lirette told The Associated Press that his roommate and co-worker Skip Nichols piloted the balloon.
An investigation has been launched into what caused the worst such disaster in U.S. history.
NTSB investigators will scrutinize the company that operated the balloon and the pilot, neither of which have been publicly identified. The balloon was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, according to two officials familiar with the investigation who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly. The operation does not appear to be registered with the state of Texas.
NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said at a press conference Sunday that investigators will be looking at all aspects of the flight, reports CBS affiliate KEYE-TV in Austin.
"The general sense, we look at three things: the human, the machine, and the environment. And what that really means is we're looking at the operation of the balloon, the pilot, the company that operated the balloon. We'll be looking at the maintenance aspects of the balloon. Witnesses - we're certainly interested to know any witness information that we may be able to get," Sumwalt said.
Though authorities haven't publicly identified the pilot, Alan Lirette told the AP that it was Skip Nichols - his best friend, boss and roommate. Nichols, 49, identifies himself on his Facebook page as the chief pilot of Heart of Texas.
Lirette helped launch the balloon, which Nichols was piloting, Lirette said Sunday morning from their shared house in Kyle, Texas. Lirette also said there were 15 people on board - none of them children - plus Nichols. Lirette would not answer specific questions about the balloon's launch or crash into a pasture Saturday morning near Lockhart, Texas.
"That's the only thing I want to talk about, is that he's a great pilot," Lirette said of Nichols, who also owns Missouri-based Air Balloon Sports LLC. "There's going to be all kinds of reports out in the press and I want a positive image there too," he said.
Records indicate that the apparent pilot of the hot air balloon was federally certified to fly balloons.
Lirette said he lived with Nichols in a home in Kyle, Texas, that county records show is owned by Alfred G. Nichols. Nichols moved south to Texas to be able to fly year-around, which the climate allows, Lirette said.
Authorities have not identified the pilot or passengers in Saturday's crash near Lockhart, Texas.
According to an online Federal Aviation Administration database, Alfred G. Nichols of Chesterfield, Missouri, was medically certified to fly in July 1996 and was rated a commercial pilot of lighter-than-air balloons on July 14, 2010. The rating is limited to hot-air balloons with an airborne heater.
Missouri records list Nichols as the owner of Air Balloon Sports LLC, based out of the same Chesterfield address as the FAA record.
The accident was one of the worst ever in the world. In February 2013, 19 people died and two people were injured when a balloon caught fire over Luxor, Egypt, and plunged 1,000 feet to the ground.
Federal officials aren't sure how many people were riding in the balloon, will look into whether the operator filed a passenger manifest before taking off and that balloons do not usually file flight plans, Sumwalt said. Lirette said that several people on board seemed related, because "a lot of last names were the same," but he didn't provide specifics. Authorities have not released the names of those who were on board.
The NTSB is interested in any cellphone video of the balloon's flight, and investigators will look for devices in the wreckage that have recoverable video shot by passengers, as well as any video from witnesses.
"When balloons go out on these flights, they have a chase couple of cars to go pick up the riders after they've landed in a field somewhere. We think there may be some chase footage from those cars," Sumwalt said.
The crash happened in farmland, and cutting through it is a row of massive high-capacity electrical transmission lines. The site of the crash appears to be right below the overhead lines and aerial photos showed an area of charred pasture underneath, but authorities haven't provided further details about what happened.
Margaret Wylie lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site and told The Associated Press that she was letting her dog out Saturday morning when she heard a "pop, pop, pop."
"I looked around and it was like a fireball going up," she said, noting that the fireball was under large power lines and almost high enough to reach the bottom of them.
Heart of Texas' website said it offers rides in the San Antonio, Houston and Austin areas. The company's Facebook page features photos of a hot air balloon with a smiley face with sunglasses on it up in the air, people waving from a large basket on the ground and group selfies taken while up in the air.
Calls to Heart of Texas operations manager Sarah Nichols, 72, rang unanswered, and a woman in Missouri believed to be his sister did not return calls seeking comment.
Austin resident Steve Brudniak told KEYE-TV he had ridden twice with the operation in May.
"The people that ran the operation were just really professional, really great people that really seemed to know what they were doing," Brudniak said.
He believed his balloon and his pilot were the same involved in Saturday morning's accident. Brudniak's flight was canceled several times because conditions weren't just right. Looking back, he said that shows how much the company prioritized safety.
Warning about potential high-fatality accidents, safety investigators recommended two years ago that the Federal Aviation Administration impose greater oversight on commercial hot air balloon operators, government documents show. The FAA rejected those recommendations, and the NTSB classified the FAA's response to the two balloon safety recommendations as "open-unacceptable," which means the safety board was not satisfied with the FAA's response.
FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said it's difficult to say whether the Texas crash will cause the agency to reconsider NTSB's recommendations "until we've had a chance to gather and examine the evidence in this particular case."