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 six skydivers into the air Friday during a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., when a storm hit.
The skydivers, whom Ristaino told to jump from the balloon before it crashed, were not 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 six lives.
The sheriff said strong winds then forced the balloon up to about 18,000 feet before it collapsed and plummeted to the ground.
Authorities have not found the balloon. Ristaino had brief radio contact with authorities but has not been heard from since.
"He told them he was in trouble," the sheriff said Sunday evening. "He didn't think he was going to make it."
McLemore said crews would resume a ground- and air-search of the mostly wooded area on Monday morning.