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Hot air balloon crash: Company suspends operations

By Polo Sandoval, Melissa Gray and Holly Yan CNN

MAXWELL, Texas (CNN) -- The Texas hot air balloon company involved in a crash that killed 16 people has suspended operations.

"It is with extraordinarily heavy hearts that we announce the suspension of operations at Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides," the company said Monday on its website.

"The horrific crash near Lockhart, Texas has taken from us our owner and Chief Pilot, Skip Nichols, as well as 15 passengers, all of whom saw what was planned to be a special day turn into an unspeakable tragedy."

Investigators suspect the fatal crash happened Saturday morning after the balloon collided with power lines, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

The "working hypothesis" is that some part of the balloon made contact with power lines, severing the balloon portion -- or envelope -- from the gondola, the basket that carries the passengers, NTSB Board member Robert Sumwalt told CNN.

That sent the gondola and its 16 occupants plummeting to the ground.

But it's still not clear whether a fire that broke out on the balloon happened before it collided with the power lines or was caused by the power lines, the NTSB said.

The NTSB expects to finish collecting what's left of the debris, including the charred gondola and the balloon itself, by the end of the day Monday, Sumwalt said.

Officials will also interview the three ground crew members Monday, he said. They will focus on Alan Lirette, as he not only worked for the pilot but was also the pilot's roommate.

The investigation will look at three main factors to determine the cause of the crash: the balloon, its operators and the environment, Sumwalt said.

He said investigators are "trying to nail down as best we can" whether fog was a factor. Though it was foggy after the accident, Sumwalt said they don't yet know whether there was fog at the time of the crash.

Newlyweds, parents among those killed

Friends of some of the victims identified them Sunday. They include the pilot, Alfred "Skip" Nichols, and newlyweds Matt and Sunday Rowan.

The Rowans got married in February, said Brent Jones, the father of Sunday's 5-year-old son, Jett. "Sunday was a very social person," Jones said. "They have hundreds and hundreds of friends."

Sunday Rowan bought the balloon flight for her husband as a birthday gift last year and it had taken them a while to schedule it, Jones said.

"Sunday was messaging her mom before getting on the balloon. Soon after takeoff, she stopped all communication," he said.

"It's hard, but I want everyone to understand how great our lives were together and how amazing these two people are."

Lirette, the ground crew supervisor for the balloon operator, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, described Nichols as his "best friend, boss and roommate."

Joe and Tresa Shafer Owens were also killed, said family friend Tricia James, who set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for their funeral.

James told CNN she worked with Tresa Owens for more than two decades at a preschool in Katy, about two hours away from where the balloon trip began.

"They adored their children and grandchildren, and loved nothing more than spending time with them," James wrote on the fundraising site.

The NTSB said the identities of all the victims would be made public later by local authorities.

Electronic devices recovered

The FBI has found 14 personal electronic devices from those aboard the balloon, Sumwalt said. They include cell phones, one iPad, and three cameras.

The cameras, he said, are destroyed, but he said he hopes NTSB lab technicians can recover the images.

"They have been able to do miraculous things" in the past to recover information from destroyed and damaged devices, Sumwalt said.

Nichols used an iPad to navigate and a cell phone to communicate with the ground crew.

Some of those aboard posted Twitter images that investigators will examine as well, Sumwalt said.

But investigators told CNN that recovering usable images or data will be challenging due to the amount of damage.

A sunrise trip

The passengers assembled for the ride at 5:45 a.m. in a Walmart parking lot and rode in a van to the launch site, Sumwalt said.

The planned launch time for the one-hour flight was at sunrise, at 6:49 a.m., but Sumwalt said for some reason it was delayed.

"We will interview the ground crew (Monday) to see if we can find out if there was any particular reason why the launch was delayed by as much as 20 minutes," he said. "We want to find out if there was anything going on there."

The utility company responsible for the lines reported they were tripped at 7:42 a.m. The first 911 call came in approximately one minute later, Sumwalt said.

The the basket that carries passengers came to rest below the power lines, in a field, he said. The actual balloon, called an envelope, landed 3/4 mile away.

Clashes over regulations

Saturday's crash is the most fatal hot air balloon crash in U.S. history, according to NTSB figures.

Previously, the country's deadliest hot air balloon crash was a 1993 accident in Colorado that killed six people.

In 2013, 19 people died in a hot air balloon crash in Egypt, near the ancient city of Luxor. That was the world's deadliest hot air balloon accident in at least 20 years.

The NTSB has expressed concern about safety regulations in hot air balloon activities, but the Federal Aviation Administration, which sets regulations for manned balloons, hasn't acted on the NTSB's recommendations, said Deborah Hersman, the board's former chairwoman.

She said she urged the FAA in a 2014 letter to address "operational deficiencies" in the industry after several incidents resulted in injuries and one death.

Hersman cited accidents in 2007, 2008 and 2013, according to the letter, which also urged more stringent regulations and oversight.

"The FAA has not responded in an affirmative way," she told CNN's Sara Ganim on Saturday. "The NTSB (has) classified that recommendation 'open-unacceptable,' which means they really haven't done what the NTSB asked."

Hersman added, "Unfortunately in aviation, they say that the lessons are often written in blood, and it takes more than one event for an action to occur."

NTSB recommendations

Given that some balloon gondolas can carry more than 20 people per flight, safety deficiencies mean a single accident could result in a "high number of fatalities," Hersman said in the 2014 letter, referring to the 2013 accident in Egypt.

In the letter, Hersman recommended requiring commercial balloon operators to have letters of authorization to hold tour flights and to give passengers a similar level of safety oversight as those on airplane and helicopter tours.

The FAA responded to the NTSB request last year, saying the proposed letters of authorization "would not result in a significantly higher level of operational safety."

The NTSB fired back in a 2016 statement, saying the FAA's reply was unacceptable.

It is unclear whether Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides implemented any of the NTSB's recommended measures.

Twenty-five balloon accidents, resulting in four fatalities and 25 serious injuries, have occurred since Hersman's 2014 letter and the last warning issued by the NTSB in March 2016, according to the exchange posted on its website.

The number does not take into account the fatalities from Saturday's crash.

CNN's Polo Sandoval reported from Maxwell, Texas. CNN's Melissa Gray and Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Khushbu Shah, Thom Patterson, Liz Flynn, John Newsome and AnneClaire Stapleton contributed to this report.

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