Houston News & Search
Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle
Last summer, 15 people died at the hands of a hot-air balloon pilot flying on a cocktail of medications near Lockhart. The Federal Aviation Administration was warned a tragedy like this could happen. But it did nothing. Read the San Antonio Express-News investigation into the hot air balloon crash on our subscriber website, HoustonChronicle.com.
Sue Rowan cherishes that last conversation with her son.
During a long drive on a Friday night in late July, he called her. He was on his way back to San Antonio, where he was chief of clinical trials in burns and trauma for a ground-breaking research institute at the Brooke Army Medical Center. With the 34-year-old’s career falling into place, it was time for other thoughts.
“Do you want your next grandchild to be a girl or a boy?” he asked.
She laughed. It didn’t matter. Just a healthy child.
He didn’t believe that.
She definitely wanted a granddaughter.
They already had a beautiful boy in their lives – 5-year-old Jett. Matt had married Jett’s mother, Sunday Stewart Rowan, five months earlier. On that Friday night, Matt was on his way back from dropping Jett off with his father.
Matt and his mother talked for about an hour. He was excited about a sand volleyball tournament and anxious about a $4 million research grant he’d been awarded. And he was pumped about a conference coming up in Hawaii.
Sometime after they hung up, Matt and Sunday got an unexpected message. The hot-air balloon trip she had bought Matt for his birthday more than a year earlier was going to happen the next day. They’d had so many cancellations due to weather that Matt had given up. Sunday texted her mom, Janis Stewart, with lots of exclamation points.
“Oh, my gosh,” Janis texted back. “You have no idea how many times I have thought about this and hated the fact that you guys had lost your money on this.”
For years, Sunday had worked in children’s retail stores, and she was always bestowing outfits on friends, and on the kids at church. Now, she’d give her last gift, finally, to her husband.
Alfred “Skip” Nichols woke at 3:30 a.m. that Saturday, July 30, after sleeping six and a half hours. He poured some coffee. His roommate and ground crew chief, Alan “Bubba” Lirette, let the dogs out, checked the grass for dew and peered at the sky. It was clear.
Nichols, 49, had come to Texas three years earlier after an early release from a Missouri prison. A string of drunken driving and drug convictions had left him unable to drive legally. He’d lied about his alcohol convictions on FAA forms – and the FAA knew that – but the agency let him pilot balloons anyway.
Nichols, at 6 feet, 220 pounds, saw doctors in two states to treat a host of conditions, four of which could have disqualified him from flying under FAA rules. He had high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes treated with insulin, major depression, attention deficit disorder, insomnia, fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.
On that morning, he may have taken eight or more pills – or he may have been coming down off pills taken in the hours or days before. Either way, coursing through his veins were the sedative Valium, the painkiller Oxycontin, two antidepressants, the ADHD stimulant Ritalin, the sedating allergy medicine Benadryl, a muscle relaxant, Tylenol and cough syrup. One FAA doctor later said the cocktail was a “witch’s brew” that made it impossible to judge the degrees by which his judgment and coordination were impaired. The only certain thing was that, under FAA rules, the drugs disqualified him from flying.
His final morning was pieced together through government documents, witness statements and presentations given to the National Transportation Safety Board at a public hearing.
Lirette loaded the van with champagne and orange juice for passengers to celebrate post-flight. He knew Nichols had “a colorful past,” but thought he was turning his life around. Voyages through the serene Central Texas skies in the yellow, smiley-face balloon seemed to be the best medicine of all.
As they drove from the house, Nichols called the Lockheed Martin Flight Service for a pre-dawn weather briefing.
After a few minutes, the person chatting with Nichols concluded: “Those clouds may be a problem for you.”
“Well, we just fly in between them,” Nichols replied.
“In between them?”
“We find a hole, and we go.”
Crucially, the temperature and dew point were nearly equal, a sign that fog and mist could form at any time.
Safe pilots don’t fly in and out of clouds. Some won’t fly when the cloud ceiling is as low as 3,000 feet. The clouds at San Marcos regional airport were at 700 feet. Across Central Texas, other commercial tours were canceling.
But Nichols was in the Walmart parking lot in San Marcos, meeting the Rowans and 13 other passengers.
He released a small weather balloon and chose his launch site, 12 miles southeast at Fentress Airpark. On the way there, he and Lirette noticed a layer of fog over the ground.
By the time they were ready to launch, it was clear enough they could see a pole, outside the park’s skydiving school, that they used to judge visibility. But clouds were still forming, and another bellwether – a nearby radio tower – was mostly obscured.
Balloon pilots are taught never to stop making calculations. Weather changes in an instant. If the pilot sees something he doesn’t like, cancellations can happen with passengers in the basket. Customer disappointment, in this business, is routine.
One of Nichols’ former pilots, Mike McGrath, said his boss wasn’t immune to financial pressures. And if Nichols cancelled 10 days in a row and then had iffy weather, McGrath said, he might push it, especially with passengers waiting to fly – and especially at the end of the month, when bills were due.
It was the end of the month, nearly 7 a.m. Nichols had 15 passengers who paid as much as $400 each. A mother and daughter. A grandmother. Five couples.
No one knows exactly what calculation Nichols made in that moment – or how the brew of substances permeating his brain changed the equation.
The sun was coming up. Matt helped hold the balloon, grinning and tugging on the red fabric as the burners filled it nine stories high. Sunday sent that image, and others, to her mother.
“You guys look so cute!” Janis texted back.
“It’s so beautiful,” Sunday wrote. “Worth the year and a half wait.”
Minutes later, they sailed into the clouds.
The pictures kept coming on Janis’ phone. Standing in the gondola. Going over the trees. A glimpse of fog. The reflection of the balloon in a stock tank. It was typical for Sunday, an effusive stream of photos and texts during a burst of excitement.
Then, as was not typical, it all stopped.
Sue was teeing off on a golf course near home in College Station when she got Sunday’s photo of Matt holding the balloon.
She played her round, got in the car and turned on news radio. They were reporting a hot-air balloon accident. She called Matt and Sunday and got no answer. She called Janis, who also lives in College Station. Janis told her not to worry, because it didn’t sound to her like the right location.
But Sue’s stomach was churning. Matt and Sunday were on their phones all the time. Why hadn’t they texted her?
There was a frantic round of calls, within the families and between them. In their respective homes, they surrounded themselves with friends and relatives. Janis called Brent Jones, Jett’s father, and told him to come.
No official word came that day, but they’d seen a photo of Matt and Sunday from social media flash on the screen during a newscast.
Sometime that afternoon in the Stewart household, the grim reckoning began: How – and when – to tell Jett.
“Let’s let him be 5 today,” Janis told Brent. “He has the rest of his life to deal with the loss of his mother.”
On Sunday, a state trooper called to tell Janis that her daughter was on the flight manifest.
She, her husband and Brent took Jett into a bedroom to get away from the crowd of visitors. They told him Mommy and Matt went on a balloon ride. They didn’t think he understood, but he did. He’d seen one on Bugs Bunny.
They didn’t go into details about what happened.
Just that there was an accident. They’d died. The balloon ride ended in heaven.
Then the three of them held Jett.
Late Monday afternoon, Sue and Janis stood with families in a field that’s a two-hour drive west of College Station, near Lockhart. Thirteen stories above them, 340,000 volts of electricity made the power lines crackle and pop.
When the balloon’s envelope struck the wires, the hot lines sliced through the metal cables supporting the gondola. It caught fire and fell. All of the occupants died from the impact and fire, according to autopsy reports. All but two had to be identified by dental records.
On TV, the burned patch where the gondola landed looked huge. It was strangely comforting to Janis to see that it was no bigger than a dining room table.
Sunday was the second to last person identified, because Janis couldn’t find her dental records. She started the process of DNA testing, but ultimately identified her by her wedding band. The James Avery ring matched Matt’s.
An investigator found another ring among the rubble. The Stewarts had given it to Sunday when she was 16, fashioned with a diamond from Janis’ own jewelry. Sunday never took it off. Now her father wears it around his neck.
Sue wishes she’d spent less time nagging Matt. She was on him about missing family functions for volleyball. But at his funeral, about 200 volleyball players showed up, and she realized they were his family, too.
It weighs on her, the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who lost someone in this crash. How easy it could have been to stop.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but something needs to be done so not just anybody can fire up a balloon and take people up in it,” she said.
On Dec. 9, Janis went to Washington, to attend the NTSB hearing.
She learned about warnings the FAA didn’t heed.
One thing stuck with her. State troopers, NTSB officials, people from other agencies, they’d all asked how they could help. Not the FAA.
“I just think that’s offensive,” she said. “That doesn’t cost them anything to exude some human compassion and kindness.”
The Stewarts are grieving for themselves and for Jett.
Toward year’s end, a group of kids from church offered to decorate their Christmas tree. Janis told them to use any ornaments they could find from a mass of decorations in the attic.
She’d forgotten that years ago, she acquired a set in gold and crystal, in the shape of hot-air balloons.
When Jett saw one on the tree, he brought it to her. Her heart sank. She offered to remove it. Instead, Jett hung it back up. Then he walked around the living room to make sure he could see it from every angle.
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