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Body found of balloon pilot credited with saving lives

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Searchers in south Georgia recovered the body on Monday of a hot air balloon pilot who was credited with saving his passengers' lives before getting swept away by a thunderstorm three days ago.

Edward Ristaino, 63, of Cornelius, North Carolina, was ferrying five skydivers when a thunderstorm hit Friday night, said a Ben Hill County Sheriff's Department dispatcher who declined to give her name.

The passengers parachuted safely out of the balloon, but Ristaino didn't make it, the dispatcher said.

The balloon pilot had maneuvered the craft over a field before instructing his passengers to jump, passenger Jessica Wesnofske told the Charlotte Observer.

"He said, ‘You've got to get out now,'" she told the newspaper. "And we never saw him again."

Ristaino, whose body was found Monday in a heavily wooded area, was an experienced balloonist who founded the Lake Norman Balloon Co., according to the Charlotte Observer. He had no parachute, the newspaper reported.

"He saved our lives," Wesnofske said. "Another minute, we would have been in the storm with him."

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the accident, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said.

Ristaino was certified as a commercial balloon pilot, according to FAA records.

(Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)