Ben Hill County, GA -
After a weekend long search, the body of balloonist Edward Ristaino was found in thick woods around noon Monday in rural Ben Hill County.
The hot air balloon was caught in a fast-forming severe thunderstorm last Friday night.
The basket hit the ground at speeds upwards of 90 miles per hour killing Ristaino instantly. While he was in contact with members of his team on the ground until impact, where Ristaino’s doomed balloon went down was a mystery that spanned an area of 15 square miles.
It wasn’t until Monday morning when Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemors says he got a strong tip from a resident that led to the finding.
“I called her and she described it as a fabric falling straight down,” said McLemore. “It was in the general vicinity of our search, just outside the eastern border.”
They then sent helicopters over the area where the resident says she saw the fabric of the balloon. It was difficult, but one of the helicopters spotted it.
“It fell in a heavy wooded area,” said Sheriff McLemore. “You had to be almost right on top of it to be about to see it. We had flown probably 200 to 300 yards of it as part of our grids.”
The balloon was found on hunting property off rural Grouse Road.
The search for Ristaino began Friday night and had gotten stronger every minute. Officials worked long hours to get to this point.
“We had 105 people on the ground today in 7 different teams. We don’t know how many different volunteers were out today searching their own property just because we told them,” said Ben Hill EMA Director Jason Miller.
“They poured their hearts out into this thing,” said Sheriff McLemore. “They took their time and their effort. We want to thank everybody that has had a part in it.”
The Sheriff says they needed every resource that they had to find Ristaino. But, he never had any doubt that they would find him.
“We were committed from the beginning,” said Sheriff McLemore. “We know he fell. There was no doubt about that. We knew we were going to find him before we quit.”
Ristaino, a balloon enthusiast with several years experience, went up Friday with 5 skydivers in his basket who were set to jump during Fitzgerald’s Wild Chicken Festival. He is being called a hero for fighting the bad weather alone and telling the skydivers with him to jump out over a safe location.
“He was very heroic in taking those five divers and getting them out of harms way,” said Sheriff McLemore. “He rode that balloon out without any control on it. He was at the mercy of that storm, and the storm won.”
Ristaino’s brother, Dominic, told WALB News Ten’s Cade Fowler that his brother “always put others first. Always. He was that kind of guy.” He commended the efforts of volunteers and thanks the community for their help and concern in the search for his brother.
FAA investigators left the scene of the wreckage around 5:00 Monday afternoon. They say the crash was the result of bad weather.
At the crash site, despite temperatures holding in the 80′s, portions of the balloon were still iced over from hail that pelted it during the storm.