As the wind blew harder in suddenly stormy skies, Edward Ristaino told the five skydivers in his hot-air balloon he was going to buy them a few more seconds.
He pulled the chain, the flames ignited, and the balloon went higher into the sky over east Georgia on Friday.
The skydivers landed safely less than a minute later, but Ristaino’s body was found Monday after a helicopter pilot saw what was left of the Cornelius man’s balloon.
Brian Wesnofske, one of the skydivers, said if they had remained in the gondola for another minute, they all would have died.
“He went up that extra thousand feet to get us some more time,” he said Monday.
Peering over the side of the basket Friday, they spotted a 10-acre field the skydivers could use as an impromptu landing zone.
As they floated to the ground, Ristaino and the balloon were sucked into the storm. The balloon rose more than 17,000 feet before it collapsed over a wooded area, authorities say.
Ristaino, 63, who’d been flying hot air balloons for 15 years, was taking skydivers up as part of the Wild Chicken Festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., about 175 miles southeast of Atlanta. The festival is attended by skydivers across the world, who get the chance to jump from a variety of platforms – a helicopter, a biplane, a hot air balloon.
Wesnofske and his family had jumped from Ristaino’s hot air balloons for the past three years. Brian and daughter Jessica went up with him on Friday.
Wesnofske said his family trusted Ristaino, who owned several balloons, including the dragon-shaped “Loch Norman Sea Serpent.”
He always mandated a safety meeting in the morning, even for experienced skydivers. He was a skydiver himself, and knew what kind of conditions jumpers preferred. And he was cautious around bad weather.
When the balloon took off, there weren’t any signs of a storm.
“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 told The Associated Press.
The wind grew stronger and the people in the gondola could feel raindrops as the balloon climbed to 3,000 feet.
That wasn’t enough altitude for the skydivers to land safely, Wesnofske said.
Skydivers jumping from hot-air balloons need more time to build up wind resistance to angle their bodies to safely deploy a parachute, Wesnofske said. More altitude would give them critical seconds if something went wrong and they had to “cut away” their first parachute and use a backup.
So Ristaino, who didn’t have a parachute in the crowded gondola, took the balloon higher, and told the skydivers they needed to get out.
The skydivers made a rough landing a few seconds later, their parachutes buffeted by the wind as they neared the ground. When they looked up, they couldn’t see Ristaino’s balloon.
Authorities say it was carried to the northeast and, minutes later, got caught in the storm.
“It started spinning and twisted his ropes up,” McLemore said.
After the balloon rose and collapsed, it began falling at about 23 miles per hour, according to TV station WALB.
Ristaino had radio contact with ground crews during the fall. The last thing he radioed: “I’m at 2,000 feet and I see trees.”
Afterward, a group of 50 to 75 searchers used images of the storm from the National Weather Service to focus on a 12- to 15-square mile area.
A helicopter pilot spotted the balloon late Monday morning, and search crews on the ground reached the site a short time later.
Ristaino’s family couldn’t be reached for comment. On Monday, his neighbors mourned the man with the balloon mobile on his front porch who used to delight them by taking off from his front yard.
“Everyone’s sending their prayers,” Holly Beckham, a neighbor, told WCNC-TV, the Observer’s news partner.
Wesnofske, who lives in east Georgia, said he plans to drive to Cornelius to pay his respects for the man who saved him and his daughter.
“He went up, he got us out,” Wesnofske said, “and the way I look at it, I call him a hero.”