LOCKHART, TEXAS/AUSTIN TEXAS – The pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing all 16 people aboard, was a recovering alcoholic with a history of driving while intoxicated, a former girlfriend said Monday.
The Better Business Bureau warned consumers about doing business with a balloon touring company Alfred “Skip” Nichols used to operate in Missouri.
The former girlfriend said the 49-year-old Nichols had been sober for at least four years and never piloted a balloon after drinking.
“He did not fly when he wasn’t supposed to,” Wendy Bartch told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “Having other people’s lives at stake was Skip’s primary concern.”
Authorities have not publicly named anyone killed in the 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 that Nichols was a good pilot.
“That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said, speaking to AP from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle, Texas. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there too.”
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. Margaret Wylie, who lives a quarter-mile from the site, said she heard popping sounds and saw what looked “like a fireball going up.”
There were reports of foggy weather in the area of the crash around the time of the flight.
Although the baskets of many hot air balloons are limited to three to five people, some models used by sightseeing companies are much larger and can accommodate 20 people or more.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators are trying to determine what caused the crash. Board member Robert Sumwalt said the pilot was licensed to fly the balloon, but that it was too soon to say whether he had a criminal history.
A Missouri police officer, though, told AP that Nichols was arrested there in 2000 on a felony driving-while-intoxicated charge. The case was resolved two years later when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor version of the charge.
The officer said that based on photographs, he is confident the man arrested in Missouri is the same man who piloted the Texas balloon. Nichols had lived in Missouri before moving to Texas. He was known as “Skip” in both places and owned a hot air balloon touring company in St. Louis County at the time, said the officer, who spoke to AP on condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about doing business with Nichols, the third time since 2000 that he received an unsatisfactory rating for not responding to complaints. The paper quoted the BBB as saying Nichols was on probation in Missouri for the distribution, delivery or manufacturing of a controlled substance. When asked to respond, Nichols declined comment.
Bartch said she met Nichols in St. Louis in 1989 and was aware that he had multiple driving-while-intoxicated convictions.
She said Nichols’ alcoholism and criminal record caused tensions with his father, Alfred G. Nichols III, a decorated retired lieutenant colonel who piloted medical evacuation helicopters in the Vietnam War. According to a February 2016 online obituary, the elder Nichols was awarded a Purple Heart among other medals and had commanded a helicopter rescue unit at Fort Carson in Colorado.
Bartch said “there had been a mending” in Nichols’ relationship with his father in recent years.
The younger Nichols had attempted to join the military but could not meet its strict physical requirements, Bartch said.
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.
Federal Aviation Administration records indicate that the Texas company was involved in an accident with the 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.
At least two of the passengers, Matt Rowan and his wife, Sunday Rowan, posted photos on social media of the preparations, the sunrise and themselves in the basket of the balloon a short time before the crash.
NTSB investigators recovered 14 personal electronic devices, including cellphones, an iPad and three cameras, from the crash site. They will be sent to a lab in Washington for analysis.
The company whose hot air balloon crashed in central Texas said on Monday it was suspending operations following one of the deadliest balloon accidents on record.
The balloon, flown by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides chief pilot and owner Nichols, hit a power line, setting its basket on fire, and plummeted into a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles (50 km) south of the state capital Austin.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the company expressed its condolences to those killed in the crash.
“There are simply no words to express our profound sadness at this event that has taken away so many of our loved ones,” it said in a Facebook post.
The company said it has not been in contact with the relatives of those killed in the crash as it is being probed by U.S. investigators.
The names of the passengers killed have not been officially released but social media posts and local media reports indicate the victims included a couple celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary with a balloon ride at sunrise.
Aerial television footage showed flattened remnants of the red, white and blue balloon, adorned with a yellow smiley face wearing sunglasses.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board two years ago recommended greater oversight of the hot air balloon industry, said Robert Sumwalt, who is heading the federal agency’s investigation of the accident.
It was the deadliest crash involving a hot air balloon in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Balloon Federation of North America.
There have been six complaints lodged with the Better Business Bureau of Texas against the company, with one customer saying it delayed in paying refunds after repeatedly canceling rides.