Missing Balloon Pilot Died Saving Sky Divers, Survivors Tell ABC News

VIDEO: Ed Ristano saved five skydivers before dying in the storm-related accident.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Missing Georgia Balloonist Found Dead

A missing hot air balloon pilot has been found dead in Georgia and a skydiver who was in the balloon said the hero pilot "sacrificed himself for our safety."

Edward Ristaino's body was found about 12:15 p.m. today, Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore told ABCNews.com.

"He was DOA [dead on arrival]," McLemore said. "He was in the basket."

Authorities will not know an official cause of death until an autopsy is performed, but McLemore said he probably died from the impact.

Dan Eaton, 47, one of the skydivers who was in the balloon with Ristaino, 63, said that balloons had been going up all day with skydivers as part of a balloon festival. The day had been all "blue skies and sunshine," Eaton said.

"We got in and we got 1,000-1,500 feet and started seeing haze or fog out on the horizon. We were like, 'What is that?'" Eaton said. "It was a really fast-moving storm."

Eaton said Ristaino put the safety of his passengers ahead of his own when he chose to take the balloon higher, rather than try to land with all of them in a small field.

"As soon as he found a place for us to get out, he wanted to make sure we were high enough that if we had a problem with our main parachute, we'd have time to open the backup parachute," Eaton said.

Though the ideal height for jumping is around 6,000 feet, Ristaino had the divers jump at about 4,000 feet, the highest he could go with the impending storm.

"He could have put it down there where we landed, but it was a very small field and he [may have been] worried about us getting hurt," Eaton said.

Eaton said he could not know for sure why Ristaino made the decision he did, but believe he may have been trying to ensure their safety.

"He sacrificed himself for our safety," Eaton said. "If we had waited another minute or two, we would have been in the thunderstorm with him. When we got to the ground, we couldn't see the balloon anymore. He was already sucked into the storm. Lightning was already popping."

None of the skydivers were injured.

Eaton had gone up with Ristaino about six times over the years and described him as, "very professional, very safety conscious."

"I never dreamed in a million years he wouldn't be back at the airport. It never even crossed my mind. He never acted like there was anything wrong, never once did he appear worried," Eaton said.

When asked if Ristaino had a parachute or any other means of getting to safety, McLemore said, "The balloon itself acts as a parachute. It just deflated."

He said the balloon was intact, but that Ristaino had not been able to survive the fall.

McLemore said Ristaino was about seven or eight miles east of Fitzgerald, Ga., where he was last seen. Authorities received a call from a witness this morning and after speaking to her, they sent a helicopter to the area.

The helicopter spotted the balloon in a "very thick wooded area," McLemore said.

Ristaino, of Cornelius, N.C., disappeared on Friday night after his balloon was sucked into a sudden thunderstorm after he told the skydivers to jump.

Ristaino used a walkie-talkie to speak to crews on the ground, but they eventually lost contact. He may have a height of about 18,000 feet before crashing, according to the Associated Press. McLemore said the pilot was likely pulled up into the storm before being sent crashing to the ground.

"We had 105 people on the ground and six aircrafts in the air," McLemore said of today's search efforts.

McLemore said the outcome of the search was not what crews were hoping for, but that they were glad that they were able to recover Ristaino's body.

The skydivers who made it safely to the ground appreciate Ristaino's sacrifice.

"My thoughts and prayers are with his family and thanks, Ed, for your sacrifice," Eaton said.