FITZGERALD, Ga. (AP) — Authorities searched Sunday for a hot air balloon pilot from North Carolina who went missing in the South Georgia woods when his balloon crashed during a weekend thunderstorm.
Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said 63-year-old Edward Ristaino of Cornelius, N.C., was taking five skydivers into the air Friday evening during a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., when a storm hit.
Ristaino told the skydivers to jump from the balloon. None were injured.
"He saved our lives," Jessica Wesnofske, 30, one of the skydivers, told The Charlotte Observer. "Another minute, we would have been in the storm with him."
Erin Daly, whose brother was one of the skydivers, called Ristaino a hero who saved lives.
The sheriff said strong winds then forced the balloon up to about 18,000 feet before it collapsed in a downdraft and plummeted to the ground.
Authorities have not found the balloon. Ristaino, who had nearly two decades experience flying hot air balloons, had brief radio contact with authorities.
"He told them he was in trouble," the sheriff told The Associated Press on Sunday evening. "He didn't think he was going to make it."
McLemore said the pilot was reading off his altitude readings as he fell, in an apparent effort to assist any search. The sheriff said crews would resume a ground and air search of the mostly wooded area on Monday morning.