ATLANTA (AP) — As the hot-air balloon rose into the blue Georgia sky, skydiver Dennis Valdez remembers seeing a thunderstorm brewing in the distance. 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 treacherous-looking storm cloud.
"I thought this wasn't a good situation for him," the 36-year-old former Navy officer said, "but there was nothing I can do."
As lightning spidered across the sky and wind buffeted their parachutes, the five skydivers floated safely to the ground. Ristaino's balloon, meanwhile, was sucked into the clouds and then sent crashing to the earth about eight miles away. His body was found at the bottom of his gondola Monday, nearly three days after the flight.
"If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm," skydiver Dan Eaton said.
The group had taken off Friday evening, ascending 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," said Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore. "This one just popped up out of the blue."
As the storm brewed, the 63-year-old Ristaino spotted a 15-acre clearing and told the skydivers to get out. Three skydivers jumped first, followed shortly after by Valdez and a buddy from about 5,200 feet.
"At least with a plane you can turn around. Or even a helicopter. We were at Mother Nature's mercy and we had nowhere to go," Eaton said. "It was just houses and power lines and trees below us. Then he found a 15-acre field and he says, 'There you go. Get out.'"
Eaton said he didn't realize how bad the storm had become until he landed and looked up to see lightning cracking and winds howling.
"That's when we started getting nervous," Eaton recalled. "I just said, 'That's turned into something bad.'"
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. He radioed in his altitude changes as he free-fell, apparently hoping to aid ground crews.
"He told them he was in trouble," the sheriff said. "He didn't think he was gonna make it. He kept counting down."
In his last transmission, he said he was at 2,000 feet and saw trees beneath him, the sheriff said.
Sunday evening, Valdez was holding out hope that the pilot was still alive, his basket perhaps hanging from a tree in the heavily wooded area.
After searching the pines and other woods with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles, crews found Ristaino's body Monday afternoon. The storm's chaotic crosscurrents had complicated searchers' efforts to figure out where the balloon crashed.
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, and his passengers said Ristaino was also an accomplished skydiver himself.
"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."
Eaton, who had flown with him about a half-dozen times before, said Ristaino had expertly navigated his passengers through other rough conditions.
"I've seen him put the balloon down in someone's front yard," he said. "That takes skill."
His passengers were still shaken up on Monday with the news that Ristaino's body had been found.
Valdez said he would have strapped the pilot in with him when he jumped had he realized how dire the situation was. And Eaton said he would always owe a debt to the pilot who put his passengers' safety first and ultimately gave his life.
"None of us ever thought this would be the outcome," he said.
Associated Press writers Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C., and Jeff Martin and Norman Gomlak in Atlanta contributed to this report.