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Air ambulance crew administered drug to hot air balloon pilot after crash that killed 4, report says

Posted at 12:31 PM, Apr 04, 2024

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PHOENIX (AP) — Authorities trying to determine whether drugs were involved in a fatal hot air ballon crash in Arizona released an amended autopsy report Friday stating an anesthetic was administered to the pilot by an air ambulance company while he was being transported to a hospital.

The Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office said earlier this week that toxicology tests showed Cornelius van der Walt had a high amount of ketamine in his blood following the Jan. 14 fatal accident that killed him and three passengers, but did not specify how it got into his system or when.

The amended report released Friday answered the question, clarifying the ketamine was administered by the company that transported Van der Walt to a hospital.

The balloon operated by Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides plummeted about 2,000 feet (609 meters) to the desert floor south of Phoenix near Eloy.

Investigators do not yet know the cause of the crash.

Neither paramedics from the Eloy Fire Department nor the hospital staff administered the ketamine, according to the updated report, which had no other substantial changes.

While more clinics in recent years have offered ketamine as a treatment for pain, depression, anxiety and other conditions, the report noted there was no known ketamine prescription issued to van der Walt.

The report cited a study outside the U.S. that found amounts of ketamine — below the amount measured in van der Walt’s blood — have been indicative of impairment in drivers. Adverse reactions can include hallucinations, blurred vision, irrational behavior, nausea and seizures.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year said there was damage near the top of the envelope where the sewn rim tape material was frayed, and several of the balloon’s panels were damaged. The envelope is what is filled with hot air, making the balloon rise.

Thirteen people were aboard the Kubicek BB 85 Z balloon when it took off in the morning from Eloy. Eight were skydivers who exited the gondola before the crash.

The skydivers jumped out at around 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). Witnesses said the balloon partially deflated and began to lose altitude quickly before a hard impact in an empty field that serves as a drop zone for skydivers.

Van der Walt, 37, and three passengers died, including 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. Another woman was critically injured in the crash.

Droplyne Hot Air Balloon Rides notes on its website that it had a perfect safety record before the crash and has since halted operations at its only two sites in Eloy and Utah.