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Skydivers: Hot-air balloon pilot saved their lives

In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo provided by Brian Wesnofske, pilot Ed Ristaino, 63, speaks to skydivers in his hot-air balloon over Fitzgerald, Ga. Later, Ristaino would tell his five passengers to bail out just before a thunderstorm sucked in his craft and sent him plummeting to his death. Searchers found his body Monday, March 19, 2012 after combing the woods in south Georgia with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles. (AP Photo/Brian Wesnofske)

In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo provided by Brian Wesnofske, pilot Ed Ristaino, 63, speaks to skydivers in his hot-air balloon over Fitzgerald, Ga. Later, Ristaino would tell his five passengers to bail out just before a thunderstorm sucked in his craft and sent him plummeting to his death. Searchers found his body Monday, March 19, 2012 after combing the woods in south Georgia with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles. (AP Photo/Brian Wesnofske)

ATLANTA (AP) -- As the hot-air balloon rose into the Georgia sky, skydiver Dennis Valdez remembers seeing a thunderstorm brewing in the distance. North Carolina-based pilot Edward Ristaino seemed concerned but not panicked as he maneuvered the balloon above a field and told the five skydivers to jump.

It wasn't until Valdez was in midair that he realized how dangerous the weather had become. He looked up and saw Ristaino's balloon rising into a storm cloud.

As the storm hit Friday evening, the skydivers floated safely to the ground. Ristaino's balloon, meanwhile, was sucked into the clouds and then sent crashing to the earth. His body was found at the bottom of his gondola Monday.

The skydivers said this week that they didn't realize the situation had become so dangerous but credited Ristaino with saving them.