Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

Balloon pilot had anesthetic in his system at time of crash that killed 4


PHOENIX — A hot air balloon pilot had an elevated level of an anesthetic in his system at the time of a January crash that killed four people in Arizona, according to a newly released toxicology report.

Authoritie­s said tests show 37-year-old Cornelius van der Walt had a high amount of ketamine content in his blood when the balloon plummeted about 2,000 feet to the hard desert ground.

Ketamine is a rapid-acting general anesthetic that is abused for its hallucinog­enic effects, according to medical experts.

It is unclear if ketamine was a major factor in the fatal crash, however.

An autopsy report from the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office said van der Walt died from “multiple blunt force trauma” with “accident” as the manner of death.

Investigat­ors said an unspecifie­d problem with the balloon portion of the hot air balloon may have led to the crash.

The Federal Aviation Administra­tion’s preliminar­y report said the balloon had a deflated envelope, and there was “damage near the top of the envelope as the sewn rim tape material was frayed.”

Authoritie­s said 13 people were aboard the Kubicek BB 85 Z hot air balloon when it took off on the morning of Jan. 14.

Eight were skydivers who exited the gondola before the crash in Eloy, about 65 miles southeast of Phoenix.

The skydivers jumped out at around 5,000 feet. Witnesses said the balloon partially deflated and began to lose altitude before a hard impact in an empty field that serves as a drop zone for skydivers.

Declared dead at the scene was van der Walt, 37, of Eloy, and three passengers — 28-year-old Kaitlynn “Katie” Bartrom of Andrews, Indiana; 28-year-old Chayton Wiescholek of Union City, Michigan; and 24-year-old Atahan Kiliccote of Cupertino, California.

A 23-year-old woman from the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale survived the crash but was critically injured.

Van der Walt was the founder of Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides that operates in Arizona and Utah, according to the company’s website.

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