‘Something catastrophic happened’: 4 killed in hot air balloon crash in Eloy

There is also a person in critical condition following the crash, which occurred on Sunday morning, police say.

ELOY, Ariz. — Four people are dead and another person is seriously injured following a hot air balloon crash in Eloy, police said.

The balloon crash occurred at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday near Sunshine Boulevard and Hanna Road in a desert area, the National Transportation Safety Board said. Multiple people made 911 calls to report the crash.

Eloy Mayor Micah Powell said 13 people were on board the balloon gondola – eight skydivers, one operator and four passengers.

The incident occurred after the eight skydivers had exited the balloon.

”What we know at this point is the skydivers were able to exit the balloon without incident and completed their planned skydiving event, and then shortly thereafter something catastrophic happened with the balloon causing it to crash to the ground,” said Eloy Police Chief Byron Gwaltney.

According to an eyewitness, the material of the hot air balloon was straight up and down as it came down and the impact was large.

Three people were taken to an area hospital, where they later died. One person was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, Powell said.

Eloy police identified the deceased as Chayton Wiescholek, 28, from Union City, Michigan; Kaitlynn Bartom, 28, from Andrews, Indiana; Atahan Kiliccote, 24, from Cupertino, California and the pilot, 37-year-old Cornelius Van Der Walt who was from South Africa but lived in Eloy.

Valerie Stutterheim, 23, a Scottsdale resident, was taken to a trauma center in Phoenix in critical condition, according to police.

Information about the balloon’s flight plan, including its take-off point and destination, is not available. 

The NTSB said Monday that investigators have not found any mechanical anomalies with the balloon during an examination.

Chief Gwaltney said the balloon did not originate in Eloy.

Family identified one of the victims as Katie Bartrom. They told 12News she had just become a nurse and loved adventure.

Four people were killed in a hot air balloon crash in Eloy on Sunday.

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American Ballooning Safety and Training Association President Eliav Cohen said there are two reasons a hot air balloon might become deflated.

“It’s most likely because of the skydiving operation that caused that parachute to some reason float and then close its mouth. So, when they say it’s up and down, at that point, you couldn’t get any more air in,” Cohen said.

Cohen said it’s also possible the basket was too light after the eight sky divers jumped.

“If at that point there were a wind shear, you know, big gust of wind, because it was lightly loaded, it could cause that as well. Now, normally loaded, you could not have that issue,” Cohen said.

Cohen told 12News that sky diving from a hot air balloon is incredibly reckless and risky for anyone on board.

“It’s extremely, extremely rare to float a top because it means you have to be going up at least 1,300, 1,400, 1,500 feet a minute and the balloon is not supposed to by the manufacturer go over 1,000 feet per minute,” Cohen said.

The NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are at the scene investigating. 

Investigators are speaking to witnesses and reviewing video of the incident to piece together what led up to the crash.

🚨Media Release from Eloy Police Department 🚨 This morning, a devastating incident occurred in our community. At around…

Posted by Eloy Police Department on Sunday, January 14, 2024

This incident is not the only hot air balloon incident in Arizona. As recently as December, a hot air balloon came down in north Phoenix. In another instance in March 2023, one made an emergency landing in Mesa. 

According to the NTSB, there have been dozens of hot air balloon incidents investigated by the agency since 1982.

<< This story will be updated as additional information becomes available. Stay with 12News for the latest.

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