Four people have tragically lost their lives, and one person is critically injured after a hot air balloon crashed into a field in south Arizona early Sunday. The incident occurred near the city of Eloy, approximately 50 miles northwest of Tucson. The balloon had just released eight skydivers when it suddenly plummeted to the ground, leaving five people inside, according to Eloy Police Chief Byron Gwaltney.
Fortunately, the skydivers were able to exit the balloon safely and continue with their planned skydiving event. However, shortly after their exit, a catastrophic event unfolded, causing the balloon to crash.
The cause of the crash, which took place just before 8 a.m., remains unclear. Gwaltney stated that it is uncertain whether weather conditions played a role. Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were present at the scene on Sunday to investigate the accident.
Among those who lost their lives were three passengers who did not have plans to skydive, as well as the balloon’s pilot. The victims were identified 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, who was the pilot and resided in Eloy. Valerie Stutterheim, a 23-year-old woman from Scottsdale, Arizona, remains in critical condition in the hospital.
The balloon was operated by Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides, a company based in Eloy. The company, founded by van der Walt in 2017, claims to have a “perfect safety record” on its website. It emphasizes that safety is of paramount importance and that flights are not conducted in marginal weather conditions.
The tragic incident has deeply affected the skydiving community in Eloy, which is home to the world’s largest skydiving drop zone. Eloy Mayor Micah Powell expressed his condolences, acknowledging the close-knit nature of the community and their passion for the sport.
Authorities are expected to provide further updates as more information becomes available regarding this devastating hot air balloon crash..