Hot-air balloon pilot Edward Ristaino, who plummeted to his death in a South Georgia storm, used quick thinking to save the lives of his five skydiving passengers, according to a Columbia County man who parachuted to safety.
“He was definitely a hero that day, for all of us,” said Dan Eaton, a skydiving instructor from Appling, who had accompanied Ristaino on a half-dozen jumps in recent years. “He was looking out for our interests first.”
Ristaino, 63, of North Carolina, was taking Eaton and four other skydivers into the air Friday night during a festival in Fitzgerald, Ga., when a storm struck.
“It had been great weather all day,” Eaton said. “We had gone up, and all of a sudden we looked over and you could see the storm building, blowing us east, and it built really fast."
The pilot had been checking radar imagery all day, with no signs of trouble.
“Once we got up to about 1,000 feet, you could see it forming," Eaton said. "It just came out of nowhere.”
Ristaino brought the balloon to about 4,000 feet and told Eaton and two other skydivers to jump. As he ascended farther, the remaining two passengers jumped as well.
All five of them descended safely, but Ristaino and his balloon vanished as the storm swept past.
Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore told the Associated Press Monday that a helicopter located the wrecked balloon, and searchers on the ground then found Ristaino’s body.
Authorities believe strong winds from the unforeseen storm forced the balloon up to about 18,000 feet before it collapsed and plummeted to the earth.
Eaton said he is saddened at the loss of a conscientiuous and skilled pilot who put the lives of his passengers ahead of his own.
McLemore said Ristaino quickly located a field for his skydivers to jump into, and then told them to leave the balloon.