ATLANTA — As a fierce thunderstorm that seemed to come out of nowhere closed in, hot-air balloon pilot Edward Ristaino spotted an open field 4,000 feet below and calmly and tersely warned the five skydivers aboard the craft, "You need to get out now."
He may have saved their lives, but he lost his own.
With lightning spidering across the sky and the wind rocking their parachutes, the skydivers floated safely to the ground, while the balloon was sucked up into the clouds, then sent crashing to earth. Ristaino's body wasn't found until Monday, nearly three days later.
"If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm," said skydiver Dan Eaton.
The group had taken off Friday evening, ascending into a blue sky from a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., about 175 miles south of Atlanta. From the air, they could see only a haze that soon turned menacing.
"It started off as just a red dot on the radar, and then it mushroomed very quickly into a big storm. This one just popped up out of the blue," Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said.
The 63-year-old Ristaino sighted a 15-acre clearing, then told the skydivers to get out, uttering the words with remarkable calm.
Skydiver Dennis Valdez said he regrets not strapping the pilot in with him when he jumped, but he didn't realize how dire the situation was.
"We had no idea what was going on in the pilot's head," Valdez said. "It was only apparent to me post facto that he was definitely very nervous about the weather, rushing to get us out of there."
Likewise, skydiver Jessica Wesnofske said she didn't comprehend how bad the storm had become until the winds whipped and rocked her parachute on the way down.
An updraft took Ristaino into the clouds, 17,000 or 18,000 feet up, he told his ground crew via walkie-talkie. Then the storm apparently collapsed the balloon and twisted it into a streamer. In his last transmission, he said he was at 2,000 feet and saw trees beneath him, the sheriff said.
After searching the woods with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles, crews found Ristaino's body in the gondola of his twisted-up craft, about eight miles from where the skydivers landed.
The storm's chaotic crosscurrents had complicated searchers' efforts to figure out where the balloon crashed. Authorities used radar images of the storm to help guide the 50 to 75 searchers across 12 to 15 square miles.
Ristaino operated a balloon sightseeing company out of his home in Cornelius, N.C., about 20 miles north of Charlotte. He was described as a superb balloonist.
"He could take that balloon, blow it up in his front yard and take it up, missing all those power lines and everything," said Carole White, a neighbor. "He's been doing this for years and years. He loves it."
Balloon pilots have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, a process that includes training in such things as safety and meteorology.
Troy Bradley, president of the Balloon Federation of America, said that with the growing sophistication of radar technology and the wealth of radar data now available, ballooning accidents involving storms are rare. But sudden weather changes occasionally catch pilots aloft, he said.
Eaton, who has jumped from planes, helicopters and the occasional hot air balloon, said he knows enough about skydiving to recognize when he shouldn't go up. And Friday, he said, wasn't one of those days.
"We never saw it coming," he said. "We had blue skies all day. There was no issue. If there was an issue about the winds, I wouldn't have jumped. It's just not worth it."
On his way down, Valdez said, he felt helpless as he watched the outline of Ristaino's balloon fade into a storm cloud.
"He put us before he put his own safety," Valdez said.
Breen reported from Raleigh, N.C. Associated Press writers Greg Bluestein and Norman Gomlak in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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