Four people have tragically lost their lives and one person is critically injured following a horrifying hot air balloon crash in southern Arizona early Sunday morning. 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 individuals trapped inside.
Eloy Police Chief Byron Gwaltney addressed the media, stating that the skydivers were able to safely exit the balloon and complete their planned event. However, shortly thereafter, a catastrophic event unfolded, causing the balloon to crash to the ground. The exact cause of the crash remains unknown, and it is unclear whether weather conditions played a role.
Authorities from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have launched investigations into the incident. They were present at the crash site on Sunday, working diligently to determine the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
Among the victims were three passengers who had no intention of skydiving, as well as the balloon’s pilot. The passengers have been identified as Chayton Wiescholek, 28, from Union City, Michigan; Kaitlynn Bartrom, 28, from Andrews, Indiana; and Atahan Kiliccote, 24, from Cupertino, California. The pilot, Cornelius van der Walt, 37, originally from South Africa but residing in Eloy, also lost his life. A 23-year-old woman from Scottsdale, Arizona, named Valerie Stutterheim, remains in critical condition in hospital.
The balloon was operated by Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides, a company founded by van der Walt in 2017. The company claims to have a flawless safety record and emphasizes the importance of pilot discretion when it comes to marginal weather conditions. The website states that passengers have the option to either jump from the basket or witness skydivers in action.
The devastating incident has deeply affected the close-knit skydiving community in Eloy, which boasts the largest skydiving drop zone in the world. Eloy Mayor Micah Powell expressed his heartfelt sympathy for the community, acknowledging that they are passionate about the sport and are struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.
As the investigation unfolds, authorities will continue to share additional information as it becomes available. The thoughts and prayers of the community are with the victims and their families during this difficult time..