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Pilot in Fatal Hot-Air Balloon Crash Had Been Arrested for DWI

The pilot of the hot-air balloon that crashed in Texas and killed 16 people over the weekend had a troubling past, which included a DWI arrest and warnings from the Better Business Bureau about doing business with his balloon touring company.

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The 49-year-old pilot was Alfred “Skip” Nichols, who was also the owner of the operating company, Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides. Although none of the victims have been publicly identified by authorities, Nichols’ roommate and ground crew operator for the company, Alan Lirette, confirmed to the Associated Press that he was helming the balloon.

Alfred Skip Nichols
Alfred Skip Nichols

Nichols’ ex-girlfriend Wendy Bartch told the AP that he was a recovering alcoholic; however, she said he had been sober for at least four years and never flew a balloon after drinking.

“He did not fly when he wasn’t supposed to,” Bartch said. “Having other people’s lives at stake was Skip’s primary concern.”

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Nichols had at least one run-in with the law over drinking and driving. A Missouri police officer told the AP that Nichols was arrested there in 2000 on a felony charge of driving while intoxicated, and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DWI in 2002.

Hot Air Balloon Crash in Texas
Law enforcement and investigators examine the scene of a hot-air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas, on Saturday, July 30, 2016.

The Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, as well as Nichols’ former companies, have had numerous problems with the BBB. The company currently has a D+ from the business rating organization.

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In 2008, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the BBB advised customers against purchasing balloon rides from Nichols’ St. Louis–based company, Air Balloon Sports. This was the third time since 2000 that the company was issued a BBB warning for failing to respond to complaints. The BBB also said Nichols was on probation in Missouri for the distribution, delivery or manufacturing of a controlled substance, according to the newspaper. At the time, Nichols said he did not have a comment on the allegations.

As previously reported, the balloon crashed into a pasture near Lockhart, Texas, around 7:40 a.m. on Saturday, July 30. Authorities say the balloon traveled only about eight miles and hit high-tension power lines on its way down. Newlywed couple Matt and Sunday Rowan posted photos on social media of themselves in the basket prior to the fatal crash. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the accident. 

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