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Pilot in Texas balloon crash had drunk driving, drug convictions

The pilot along with 15 other people were killed when the balloon caught fire after hitting the power transmission line in Texas on Saturday.? Photograph: (Reuters)

Reuters Austin, Texas Aug 01, 2016, 09.01 PM (IST)

The pilot killed along with 15 other people in the crash of a hot air balloon in central Texas on Saturday had numerous convictions for drunk driving and at least one drug-related charge dating back to 1990, according to online records.

The balloon, flown by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides chief pilot and owner Alfred "Skip" Nichols, hit a power line, setting its basket on fire, and plummeted into a pasture near Lockhart, about 30 miles (50 km) south of the state capital Austin, killing all aboard.

Authorities have not yet issued findings of their investigation into the cause of the crash.

Online records in Missouri's St. Louis County show Nichols pleaded guilty to drunk driving charges at least three times between 1990 and 2010, as well as several other vehicular charges.

In 2000, he also pleaded guilty to a drug-related charge and spent time in prison, according to criminal records.

Following his 2010 conviction for drunk driving, Nichols was sentenced to seven years in prison and was released on parole in January 2012 after less than a year and a half.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the company expressed its condolences to those killed in the crash.

"There are simply no words to express our profound sadness at this event that has taken away so many of our loved ones," it said in a Facebook post.

The company said it has not been in contact with the relatives of those killed in the crash as it is being probed by US investigators. It could not be reached for further comment.

The names of the passengers killed have not been officially released but social media posts and local media reports indicate the victims included a couple celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary with a balloon ride at sunrise.

Aerial television footage showed flattened remnants of the red, white and blue balloon, adorned with a yellow smiley face wearing sunglasses.

The US National Transportation Safety Board two years ago recommended greater oversight of the hot air balloon industry, said Robert Sumwalt, who is heading the federal agency's investigation of the accident.

It was the deadliest crash involving a hot air balloon in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Balloon Federation of North America.

(Reuters)

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