Hot air balloon pilot involved in fire that killed 16 was in recovery for alcoholism, ex-girlfriend says
Police say the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in Texas and killed all 16 people aboard had been arrested in Missouri for driving while intoxicated in 2000.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau there had warned consumers about doing business with Alfred “Skip” Nichols after complaints about his balloon touring company.
Nichols, 49, was identified as the pilot of the Texas balloon by his friend and roommate Alan Lirette, who said that Nichols was a good pilot.
Federal investigators say the balloon hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture early Saturday morning. One witness who lives a quarter-mile from the site reported a fireball going up.
Investigators are focusing on interviewing witnesses, starting Monday with the ground crew.
Nichols’ ex-girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, says he was in recovery for alcoholism and had been sober at least four years.
Bartch told The Associated Press on Monday that she met Skip Nichols in St. Louis in 1989. She says Nichols had multiple driving while intoxicated convictions, but never piloted while drinking. She says, “having other people’s lives at stake was Skip’s primary concern.”
Bartch said Nichols’ alcoholism and criminal record caused tensions with his father, a decorated military veteran. But she says there “had been a mending” in their relationship in recent years.
Bartch said she and Nichols remained friends and she helped him set up business operations in Texas in 2014. She says in order to keep his St. Louis business going, he started offering flights in Texas in the winter.