Passengers escape as hot air balloon crashes, catches fire in Cave Creek

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(Source: Sheila Wright) (Source: Sheila Wright)
(Source: Sheila Wright) (Source: Sheila Wright)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: Sheila Wright) (Source: Sheila Wright)

Authorities say a hot air balloon carrying 13 people crashed and caught fire Wednesday morning in the desert outside Phoenix, igniting a small brush fire but causing no injuries.

Phoenix fire Capt. Jake Van Hook says it started "only a small amount of fire," which crews quickly extinguished.

A witness video shows flames and a large plume of black smoke in an area of dry brush as several people on a dirt path look on.

The crash occurred just before 8:30 a.m. in the area of  36th Street and Carefree Highway in Cave Creek, just north of the Phoenix metro area, according to Maricopa County Sheriff's officials.

Preliminary reports from the National Transportation Safety Board say it appears the incident started when a tree branch punctured the balloon's colorful outer covering, known as the "envelope."

"That branch caught fire," NTSB spokesman Chris O'Neil said.

O'Neil said all 13 people safely evacuated the balloon's basket, which then caught fire. The group attempted to put out the blaze with fire extinguishers, but it consumed the basket.

The NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration are both investigating. It's not yet clear if the pilot was trying to land when the puncture occurred.

"The sequence (of events) and the mechanics will become clearer as we go on," O'Neil said. "It's fortunate that no one was hurt."

No injuries were reported to the 13 people on board and no other information was immediately available, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

A phone message from The Associated Press left with the company the operated the hot air balloon tour,  Hot Air Expeditions in Phoenix, was not immediately returned, but the company issued a statement Thursday afternoon.

According to that statement, the fire started after the balloon had landed and the passengers had left the basket.

The company said the pilot, who has more than 30 years of experience, was landing after a "standard, safe hot air balloon flight."

"The landing, which was also a safe, calm, and routine landing, was facilitated as well," the statement explained. "The balloon landed in a desert area, near a tree. ... Once all passengers had exited the hot air balloon, it was observed that a branch of the nearby tree had caught fire, which was in turn touching the envelope of the hot air balloon, causing the hot air balloon envelope to catch fire, ultimately followed by the hot air balloon basket."  

Taking issue with the description of the incident as a crash, Hot Air Expeditions said its passengers were not "in harms way prior to, during, or after the incident, and were all in good spirits." 

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