Pilot of Storm-Damaged Balloon Found Dead

March 21, 2012; 4:44 AM
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Photo by Photos.com.

A hot-air balloon pilot credited with helping to save the lives of five passengers before he and his balloon were swept up by a thunderstorm has been found dead in the woods of southern Georgia.

Law enforcement officials made the announcement on Monday after searching through the weekend for the body of 63-year-old Edward Ristaino, who disappeared into the woods after his balloon was deflated by a strong thunderstorm last Friday evening around 6:00 p.m. local time.

The passengers onboard, all skydivers visiting the Georgia town of Fitzgerald for a five-day skydiving gathering, said that Ristaino calmly instructed them to jump into a small open field below just seconds before the storm claimed the balloon. The skydivers landed safely.

Minutes later, 911 dispatchers heard a chilling call from Ristaino as he was free-falling toward the ground.

"He was essentially saying, I am deflated and I am free-falling," Ben Hill County Sheriff, Bobby McLemore told the New York Times. McLemore added that, "At 2,000 feet he said, 'I see trees,' and that was it. The transmission ended."

Experts say the balloon likely collapsed in the thunderstorm's strong winds, causing the basket to hurdle toward the trees below at more than 80 mph.

Map of Fitzgerald, Ga., (left, Google Maps), and a still image of the doppler radar over the Southeast from 6:00 p.m. last Friday (right).

Through archive data, AccuWeather.com Meteorologists have verified that there was indeed a thunderstorm in the Fitzgerald, Ga., area when the tragedy occurred on Friday evening.

Doppler radar from 6:00 p.m. clearly shows a strong thunderstorm near the area.

And while there are no weather stations reporting data online from Fitzgerald, the municipal airport in nearby Douglas, Ga., showed evidence of the nearby storm with a sharp drop in pressure and a temporary spike in wind.

The data can be viewed online at the station's MesoWest page.

Since the thunderstorm did not impact the observing station directly, it is possible wind gusts were higher to the north and west in the actual thunderstorm as it passed through Fitzgerald.

One of the skydivers told the Times that as the balloon gained elevation they noticed what appeared to be haze or fog, but then they quickly realized it was a thunderstorm.

By then, it was too late and the balloon shot into the clouds thanks to a massive updraft according to McLemore.

The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the incident.

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