Crews Search for Balloonist Who Fell From 17,000 Feet Amid Storm

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By Vivian Kuo, CNN

ATLANTA — Search-and-rescue teams were conducting an aerial and ground search Monday for a missing hot air balloonist who crashed in Georgia three days earlier.

At least seven helicopters and planes were in the air and more than 100 people were on the ground looking for Ed Ristaino of North Carolina, Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said.

Teams made up of state patrol officers, forestry units, neighboring sheriff’s department personnel, and other volunteers were scouring areas east of Fitzgerald in south-central Georgia, where it is believed the balloon basket went down.

The search was not easy, McLemore said.

“It’s majority pines out there with underbrush, some hardwood bottoms, really just a lot of vegetation,” he said. “It’s more woods than anything — we don’t have a lot of open areas.”

Ristaino had taken five skydivers up in his hot air balloon around 6:45 p.m. Friday when he noticed the wind picking up and realized he was driving the balloon toward a large incoming storm system, McLemore said.

“The storm was pulling the balloon closer towards it so he asked the skydivers to bail out. He had them jump from about 5,000 feet.”

While the five skydivers landed safely and were picked up, Ristaino and the balloon continued heading southeast and rose another 2,000 feet, McLemore said.

“He went up into the clouds and had radio contact with his ground crew and told them it was hailing on him, there was lightning and rain and heavy wind,” he said.

An updraft carried Ristaino up to about 17,000 or 18,000 feet above ground before a downdraft collapsed the balloon and sent him plummeting.

Ristaino stayed calm and talked to his ground crew on the radio the entire time he was falling.

“I’m in trouble, I’m falling, I don’t have anything above my head,” McLemore recalled from accounts told to him.

The balloonist said he was falling at 2,000 feet per minute, but an altimeter reading says he may have been falling as quickly as 60 to 90 mph, McLemore said.

“As he was falling, he did a countdown. He couldn’t see anything because he was in the clouds. But when he broke through the clouds, he said, ‘I see trees,’ and that’s the last the last thing they heard.”

McLemore is asking for landowners and members of hunting clubs east of Fitzgerald, GA to comb their properties because the terrain is so heavily forested, aerial crews may have problems spotting what’s left of the balloon.

“He definitely saved those skydivers’ lives,” the sheriff said. “We’re hoping we’ll find him alive. Hoping and praying, that’s all about we can do.”