Crews search for missing hot air balloon pilot
FITZGERALD, Ga. - March 19, 2012 (WPVI) -- Crews in helicopters, airplanes and on foot resumed their search of woods Monday in south Georgia for a hot air balloon pilot who disappeared after his balloon was engulfed by a thunderstorm and sucked into the clouds.
About 50 to 75 people were searching an area roughly 12 to 15 square miles of terrain, Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore told The Associated Press.
Edward Ristaino, 63, of Cornelius, N.C., was taking five skydivers into the air Friday night during a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., when a storm struck, McLemore said.
Ristaino told the skydivers to jump from the balloon. None of them were injured.
The pilot was using a walkie-talkie to speak with his ground crew as he plummeted toward the ground, McLemore said.
"He told him he had gone into the clouds, that an updraft had taken him up to 17,000, 18,000 feet," McLemore said.
The pilot also maintained communication as he plummeted toward the ground, the sheriff said.
"He had just made the statement that I'm at 2,000 feet and I see trees and that was his last transmission."
Now, searchers are using radar imagery of the storm at the time and studying weather patterns to help them determine where he might have touched down.
"We're dealing with a storm here with a lot of cross currents at different altitudes, so that's why the area is so large," McLemore said.
"We're looking at weather patterns, wind direction," he said. "It was a rather large storm and when he went into the clouds, he was pulled right into the storm."
Searchers believe the balloon had collapsed above Ristaino, making it a challenge to spot it on the ground.
"It wasn't nothing but a streamer when it came down and it's going to be a very small object to be looking for," McLemore said.
One of the skydivers, 30-year-old Jessica Wesnofske, told The Charlotte Observer the pilot saved their lives. She said if he'd waited another minute, the skydivers would have been in the storm.
georgia, hot air balloon, missing person, national/world
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