An impromptu memorial stands outside the home of Tresa and Joe Owens in Brookshire, Texas, on Monday. Family members told the Associated Press the couple died in the hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people on Saturday near Lockhart, Texas. Court records show the pilot of the hot-air balloon was convicted of drunken driving four times. (John Mone / AP)
LOCKHART, TEXAS—The pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed in Texas, killing all 16 people aboard, was convicted of drunken driving at least four times in Missouri and twice spent time in prison, court records show.
A former girlfriend described Alfred “Skip” Nichols as a recovering alcoholic. She said the 49-year-old had been sober for at least four years and never piloted a balloon after drinking.
Nichols pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in St. Louis County in 1990, then twice in 2002 and again in 2010, according to online court records.
He was also convicted of a drug crime in 2000 and spent about a year-and-a-half in prison before being paroled. He was returned to prison in April 2010 after his parole was revoked because of his drunken driving conviction that year. He was paroled again in January 2012.
The former girlfriend, Wendy Bartch, said Nichols “did not fly when he wasn’t supposed to. Having other people’s lives at stake was Skip’s primary concern.”
Among the 16 people who were killed in the hot-air balloon crash over the weekend were a couple celebrating their 17th wedding anniversary, a researcher whose work focused on treating burn victims and a woman who took her mother as a belated Mother’s Day gift, grieving family members said.
Authorities have not publicly named anyone killed in Saturday’s crash, saying it could take a while to identify the bodies. But Nichols was identified as the pilot by his friend and roommate Alan Lirette, who said that Nichols was a good pilot.
“That’s the only thing I want to talk about, is that he’s a great pilot,” Lirette said, speaking to the AP from a house he shared with Nichols in Kyle, Texas. “There’s going to be all kinds of reports out in the press, and I want a positive image there too.”
Some family members have come forward to say their loved ones were aboard and to speak of the growing dread they felt in the hours after the crash as their frantic texts and voicemails went unanswered.
Josh Rowan said his brother and sister-in-law, Matt and Sunday Rowan, were among those killed. The couple, both 34, grew up in College Station and had been friends since high school, and had just gotten married in February, he said.
“All of us were sort of calling them and texting them and messaging them and just trying to get anything back and just sort of time went on and we didn’t hear anything back,” Rowan said, noting that authorities later told the family his brother and sister-in-law were aboard the balloon.
Joe and Tresa Owens took the balloon ride as a belated anniversary present to themselves, his sister, Angie Nadolny of Mattoon, Illinois, said by phone Monday. The couple had been married 17 years and lived in Brookshire, west of Houston.
Nadolny said her brother posted a photo on social media saying he and his wife were about to go on a balloon ride and giving the same launch location as the one used for the ride that crashed. She said she and other family members kept trying to call her brother, but they never heard back.
She also said she’s grown frustrated that authorities haven’t revealed the identities of the victims in the crash, which is being investigated.
“No one at all, as far as any authorities, can tell me what happened to my brother,” she said.
Paige Brabson organized the balloon ride as a belated Mother’s Day gift to her mother Lorilee Brabson, according to Jason Pino, the brother of Lorilee Brabson.
Pino told KKTV in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that his sister was posting photos to social media for much of the ride and then the postings stopped. After news of the wreck broke, family members started calling the two to check on their safety.
“We were just praying they were out of service or something,” Pino said.
Authorities say the balloon, which was operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, hit high-tension power lines before crashing into a pasture Saturday near Lockhart, about 60 miles (96 kilometres) northeast of San Antonio.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Board member Robert Sumwalt said the pilot was licensed to fly the balloon.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2008 that the Better Business Bureau had warned consumers about doing business with Nichols. It was the third time since 2000 that he received an unsatisfactory rating for not responding to complaints.
The paper quoted the BBB as saying Nichols was on probation in Missouri for the distribution, delivery or manufacture of a controlled substance. When asked to respond, Nichols declined to comment.
Bartch, who said she met Nichols in St. Louis in 1989, said Nichols’ alcoholism and criminal record caused tensions with his father, Alfred G. Nichols III, a decorated retired lieutenant colonel who piloted medical evacuation helicopters in the Vietnam War. According to a February 2016 online obituary, the elder Nichols was awarded a Purple Heart among other medals and had commanded a helicopter rescue unit at Fort Carson in Colorado.
Bartch said “there had been a mending” in Nichols’ relationship with his father in recent years.
The younger Nichols had attempted to join the military but could not meet the physical requirements, Bartch said.
Bartch described Nichols as lighthearted, a follower of the Grateful Dead whose dogs, Zappa and Joplin, were named after two of his favourite musicians.
She said that after she and Nichols broke up, they remained friends, and she helped him move to Texas in 2014. In order to keep his St. Louis business going, he started offering flights in Texas in the winter when St. Louis was rainy and cold.
Federal Aviation Administration records indicate that the Texas company was involved in an accident with same balloon two years ago. On Aug. 3, 2014, the balloon made a hard landing in Kyle, Texas, when the pilot touched down abruptly to avoid striking a ground-crew vehicle that had been parked in the balloon’s path. Two passengers were hurt.
It was not clear if Nichols was the pilot on that day.
Missouri court records show that Nichols in 2013 settled a personal injury lawsuit filed by one of eight passengers in a balloon that crash-landed in suburban St. Louis. The lawsuit blamed lack of propane. Nichols blamed lack of wind.
At the site of Saturday’s crash, NTSB investigators recovered 14 personal electronic devices, including cellphones, an iPad and three cameras. They will be sent to a lab in Washington for analysis.
Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre
Pilots like most trusted professions are no different from any other trusted professions
such as medical, legal or social, meaning, doctors, judges, lawyers, police and social workers just to name a few,
which cannot be trusted all the time.
Judges, lawyers and social workers just to name a few, are regularly found to commit criminal offences
and their oaths of office mean nothing unless there is accountability.
This particular pilot was not accountable. His licence was not pulled as it should have been.
If he had been a regular fixed wing airline pilot, he would never had got a job.
Somewhere in this story, someone or a group of people failed to do their due diligence and or
failed to do their duty.
There is also the problem of those who misconstrue their duty to engage in abuse of power,
to make things appear wrong or appear correct to suit their preformed conclusions or worst still,
to restate history or restate facts because the true facts cause them discomfort, which is a classic
problem in Ottawa Ontario where the Judiciary, the Police, and Child Protection Workers engage
in criminal acts of abuse of power without any accountability because that's the custom in the
City of Ottawa.
If you want to meet Child Abusers and Criminals who committ offences against the
administration of justice, the very worst examples in Ottawa are
the Judiciary and the Ottawa Police.
The odds of them every being convicted of drunk driving is entirely remote,
mostly because they have the financial resources to have someone else drive
but it does not end the problem of those in the Judiciary who suffer from alcohol
and drug addiction whose addictions impair their ability and which are a symptom
of their contempt for the law that they swear a meaningless oath to uphold.
Welcome to the Most Corrupt City in Ontario, the capital of Corruption
Ottawa. Home of Ontario's largest Criminal Organization, The Ottawa Police
and their partners in crime, the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa.
Ottawa Mens Centre
Ottawa Mens Centre