Four people are dead and one person critically injured after a hot air balloon crashed into a field in south Arizona early Sunday, authorities said.
The balloon was flying near the city of Eloy, roughly 50 miles northwest of Tucson, and had just released eight skydivers when the aircraft mysteriously plummeted to the ground with five people inside, the city’s police chief told reporters on Sunday.
“The skydivers were able to exit the balloon without incident and complete their planned skydiving event,” said Eloy Police Chief Byron Gwaltney. “Then shortly thereafter something catastrophic occurred with the balloon causing it to crash to the ground.”
It’s not yet clear what caused the crash just before 8 a.m., or if weather may have played a factor, said Gwaltney.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were both at the scene Sunday investigating the accident, Gwaltney said.
Three of the people killed were passengers, with no plans to skydive, and one was the balloon’s pilot, police said.
They were identified on Monday as: Chayton Wiescholek, 28, from Union City, Michigan; Kaitlynn Bartrom, 28, from Andrews, Indiana; Atahan Kiliccote, 24, from Cupertino, California; and Cornelius van der Walt, 37, originally from South Africa, was the pilot. He lived in Eloy.
A 23-year-old woman from Scottsdale, Arizona, identified as Valerie Stutterheim, remained hospitalized Monday in critical condition, police said.
The balloon’s operator was identified by police as Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides. The company, listed as based in Eloy, did not immediately respond to an email and call seeking comment Monday.
A website for Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides states that the company was formed by van der Walt in 2017 and that it has “a perfect safety record.”
“When we doubt safety, in cases of marginal weather, we do not fly, and the pilot in command always has the last and final say,” the website states.
Balloon riders have the opportunity to either jump from the basket or watch skydivers take the plunge, according to the website.
Eloy Mayor Micah Powell said his city has the world’s largest skydiving drop zone and a very large skydiving community that is taking the tragedy hard.
“I know how devastated they are from a distance just because of how close-knit they are. They live and breathe this sport,” he told reporters Sunday.
Police said additional information will be released as it becomes available.