A hot air balloon carrying at least 16 people crashed in central Texas after catching fire, and the Caldwell County Sheriff said "it does not appear there were any survivors."
Sheriff Daniel C. Law said in a statement that "investigators are determining the number and identities of victims at this time."
There were "a number of fatalities," Erik Grosof of the National Transportation Safety Board told reporters at the scene. They are classifying this as a "major accident" due to the "significant loss of life." The NTSB is now leading the investigation, he said. The FBI will also assist with scene documentation.
NPR's John Burnett, who is at the scene, told our Newscast unit that the balloon "hit some power lines, some very tall power lines in the middle of a sorghum field."
Witness Margaret Wylie, who lives in a nearby mobile home, told John that she "heard these pop pops as the hot air balloon hit these high tension wires, and then she saw a great fireball go up, almost as tall as the lowest wires. And she heard a great roar and it scared the cattle next door and they all ran for the barn. And then she ran inside and called 911."
The emergency dispatchers received a 911 call at 7:44 a.m. local time, and "when the emergency responders and the sheriff's office arrived on scene, it was apparent that the reported fire was the basket portion of the hot air balloon," Law said.
The sheriff said it happened in the Maxwell, Texas area, about 35 miles south of Austin.
In a statement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the crash a "heartbreaking tragedy." Here's more:
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, as well as the Lockhart community. The investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost."
In April 2014, Deborah Hersman, then the chairman of the NTSB, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta calling for greater oversight on commercial balloon operators. Citing previous incidents, the letter says that the "potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight."
In its response, the FAA said that it rejected the recommendations, because they would "not result in a significantly higher level of operational safety." It added: "Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low given that ballooners understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity." Despite warnings of potential fatalities, no changes were made.
We'll update this story as authorities release further information.
This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.