Friend of balloon pilot says 16 total on board

Scene of a hot air balloon crash in central Texas on Saturday, July 30, 2016. (Courtesy WOAI via NBC News)

LOCKHART, Texas (AP) – A man who worked for the pilot of a hot air balloon says his boss was among the 16 people who died when it crashed.

Alan Lirette told The Associated Press that Skip Nichols was also his best friend and roommate at a home in Kyle, Texas.

Federal investigators have not publicly identified the pilot or the company that operated the balloon.

Two officials familiar with the investigation who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly have said Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides operated it.

Lirette said he was part of the team that launched the balloon Saturday morning, so he didn’t see it crash. He did not say the location of the balloon launch.

He said there 15 people on board plus Nichols in a balloon that could have held up to 17 people total. He said several passengers seemed to be related.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board says they’re particularly interested in any cellphone video of the balloon’s flight.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said Sunday at a news conference in Washington that balloons don’t have black boxes, but that cellphone video has been helpful in the past.

Investigators will be combing the wreckage looking for devices that have recoverable video shot by passengers. They’ll also be reviewing any video shot by witnesses.

Sumwalt cautioned Sunday that investigators are still determining how many people were aboard the balloon when it crashed Saturday morning, but that he could confirm at least 16 had died.

That makes it one of the worst hot air balloon crashes in U.S. history.

During the brief news conference in Washington, D.C., Sumwalt said NTSB investigators were just beginning the process of determining what caused the balloon to crash.

He offered few details but said they would be looking into whether the operator of the balloon filed a passenger manifest before taking off, because balloons do not usually file flight plans.

The crash happened Saturday morning in a pasture near Lockhart, which is about 30 miles south of Austin.

The crash apparently is the worst such crash in U.S. history and among the deadliest in the world.

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