Four people are dead and a fifth is critically hurt after a hot air balloon crash Sunday morning south of Phoenix in Pinal County, Arizona.
Eloy police say it happened at about 7:50 a.m. in a rural desert area.
The mayor of Eloy said that 13 people — eight skydivers, four passengers and a pilot — had been in the balloon. Before the crash, the skydivers exited the gondola. Witnesses told officials that the balloon was straight up and down before a hard impact.
One person was pronounced dead at the scene, while the other three died at a hospital. One person is hospitalized in critical condition.
The victims' identities have not yet been released, pending notification of next of kin.
A family who spoke to Scripps News Phoenix identified one of the victims as 28-year-old Katie Bartrom, a registered nurse from Indiana. Bartrom's mom, Jennifer Hubartt, says she loved skydiving and adventure.
"It's kind of somber here at home. We're crying about her on and off and talking about her on and off, still trying to make it real," said Hubartt. "She was a beautiful person; she recently became an RN and was making it on her own."
Hubartt said Bartrom traveled from Indiana to Arizona with friends.
"I talked to her while she was down there and she was really enjoying the experience and having fun and seeing a new place that she had never seen before."
Several friends in the skydiving community told Scripps News Phoenix that the pilot, Cornelius van der Walt, died in the crash.
Area skydivers Tanya Toliver and David Boone say they've been on van der Walt's balloon.
"That balloon was the first balloon that I did my first hot air balloon ride on and skydive on, and we've jumped on that balloon so many times," said Toliver.
"It hit me as a shock. Just because, you know, Cornelius is always super careful. He's very, very aware of what he's doing. He's been doing it for a long, long time and he only got better with time," said Boone. "He was just an excellent balloon pilot. It's not like he wasn't experienced to dropping skydivers. There's definitely [a] different way to do it. So he knew what he was doing."
Boone said that in order to jump from a hot air balloon, divers are required to have a certain license and have done at least 50 skydives. The balloon also has to be in descent when divers are exiting.
“The hot air balloon takes you up to about 10,000 feet and then you exit accordingly, you know, by weight, size, on each side of the gondola," Boone said.
Eloy police are working with federal agencies, including the NTSB and FAA, to investigate the crash.
NTSB officials say the balloon crashed after an unspecified problem with its envelope.
This incident remains under investigation.
This story was originally published by Scripps News Phoenix.
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