ATLANTA — As a fierce thunderstorm that seemed to come out of nowhere closed in, hot-air balloon pilot Edward Ristaino spotted an open field 4,000 feet below and calmly and tersely warned the five skydivers aboard the craft, “You need to get out now.”
He may have saved their lives, but he lost his own.
With lightning spidering across the sky and the wind rocking their parachutes, the skydivers floated safely to the ground, while the balloon was sucked up into the clouds, then sent crashing to earth. Ristaino’s body wasn’t found until Monday, nearly three days later.
“If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm,” said skydiver Dan Eaton.
The group had taken off Friday evening, ascending into a blue sky 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.
The 63-year-old Ristaino sighted a 15-acre clearing, then told the skydivers to get out, uttering the words with remarkable calm.
Skydiver Dennis Valdez said he regrets not strapping the pilot in with him when he jumped, but he didn’t realize how dire the situation was.
“We had no idea what was going on in the pilot’s head,” Valdez said. “It was only apparent to me post facto that he was definitely very nervous about the weather, rushing to get us out of there.”
Likewise, skydiver Jessica Wesnofske said she didn’t comprehend how bad the storm had become until the winds whipped and rocked her parachute on the way down.
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. In his last transmission, he reported that he was at 2,000 feet and saw trees beneath him, according to the sheriff.
After searching the woods with helicopters, airplanes, horses and all-terrain vehicles, crews found Ristaino’s body in the gondola of his twisted-up craft, about eight miles from where the skydivers landed.