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Hot air balloon catches fire, crashes in Texas; 16 feared dead

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kavram | Getty Images

Texas state police confirmed that 16 people died on Saturday in the crash of a hot-air balloon, which eyewitnesses said struck power transmission lines and burst into flames before plunging into a pasture.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the crash, one of the deadliest balloon accidents on record, occurred near Lockhart, about 30 miles (50 km) south of Austin and that at least 16 people were on board the craft.

The FAA did not comment on fatalities, but Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law said there did not appear to be any survivors and that his office was working to determine the identities of those aboard.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety later confirmed that 16 people were dead.

Emergency responders in Texas said the fire hit the basket portion of the hot-air balloon.

The National Transportation Safety Board offered no details on what may have caused the accident, which occurred on a clear day. But a spokesman at the scene said a Federal Bureau of Investigation team was being dispatched to help in evidence-gathering.

The spokesman said the balloon probably belonged to a tour group that offers hot-air balloon rides.

Margaret Wylie, an area resident, told reporters she believed that before the balloon crashed, it hit high power lines, which caused popping sounds like a gun going off.

"It went up like a big fireball," she told reporters, adding the chase group for the balloon arrived on the scene after the sheriff's department.

The crash of the balloon is the deadliest on record in the Western Hemisphere, said Jeff Chatterton, a spokesman for the Balloon Federation of North America.

"There are thousands of balloons that go up every year," he said. "This is unspeakably tragic but it is rather unique."

More than 150 commercial hot air balloon companies operate in North America, he said.

More than a dozen police vehicles could be seen on pasture land at the site of the crash, which the FAA said occurred at about 7:40 a.m. (8.40 a.m. ET).

Lockhart, a town of about 13,000 people near state parks, is home to a variety of barbecue restaurants considered to be among the best in the state.

The accident occurred about three years after 19 people, mostly Asian and European tourists, were killed in a hot air balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

A year before that incident, a hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed in New Zealand, killing all 11 people on board.