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Searchers find balloon pilot body

Searchers have found the body of a US hot-air balloon pilot who ordered five skydivers to jump before his balloon plummeted and crashed during a weekend thunderstorm, a sheriff said.

A helicopter spotted the balloon, and searchers on the ground then found the body of 63-year-old Edward Ristaino in south Georgia, Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said.

The balloon was found draped over the basket containing the body in a heavily wooded area, the sheriff said.

A fast-developing thunderstorm sucked in Mr Ristaino's balloon while he was ferrying skydivers on Friday, then sent the craft plummeting toward the ground.

As the storm that seemed to come out of nowhere closed in, Mr Ristaino spotted an open field 4,000 feet below and calmly and tersely warned the five skydivers aboard the craft: "You need to get out now."

The skydivers parachuted to safety. The balloon was sucked up into the clouds, then sent crashing to earth.

"If we would have left a minute later, we would have been sucked into the storm," said skydiver Dan Eaton.

The group had taken off, ascending into a blue sky from a festival in Fitzgerald, Georgia. From the air, they could see only a haze that soon turned menacing.

"It started off as just a red dot on the radar, and then it mushroomed very quickly into a big storm. This one just popped up out of the blue," Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said.

Skydiver Dennis Valdez said he regrets not strapping the pilot in with him when he jumped, but he did not realise how dire the situation was.

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