ERIN, Wis. -- The pilot of a commercial blimp that plunged out of the sky and crashed and burst into flames late Thursday morning about a mile from the U.S. Open at Erin Hills was "alert and conscious" as he was flown by helicopter to the hospital, according to a law enforcement officer on the scene.
Paramedics were seen tending to the injured pilot before they wheeled the man into a waiting helicopter marked "Flight For Life." Authorities told reporters who arrived at the crash site that no one else was on board but the pilot. Patrick Walsh, CEO of AirSign, an advertising firm, identified the pilot to ESPN as Trevor Thompson. Walsh said the crash was due to "a catastrophic failure" of the skin near the top of the ship that led to depressurizing and loss of shape, and it then caught fire in the air.
Walsh called Thompson one of the most sought-after pilots of this type of airship in the United States, and he credited crew chief Matt Schmidt with saving his life. Schmidt told ESPN.com that he was the first to arrive at the crash scene and that he pulled Thompson away from the burning wreckage just before the blimp's propane tanks exploded.
"I heard him calling out for help when I got there," Schmidt told ESPN. "He was able to get out of the gondola and he was probably 5 to 10 feet away from [the blimp] trying to crawl away. I asked him if he could move, and he said he couldn't get up and walk. I pulled him as far away as I could and as fast as I could. I got 50 feet away before the first tank exploded, and then I pulled him about another 60 feet away before the second one exploded."
Schmidt said that Thompson suffered burns on his back and on the back of his neck and head. Schmidt said he was told by paramedics on the scene that the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening.
Photo of paramedics moving blimp crash victim to helicopter at the U.S. Open
Early in the day, the blimp showed no signs of distress. At 10:35 a.m., AirSign tweeted an aerial shot of Erin Hills Golf Course, asking followers to tweet pictures of the ship, which was advertising for the PenFed Credit Union. But 30 minutes later, fans, players and caddies at Erin Hills were seen pointing to the sky as the blimp plunged beyond nearby trees and into a farmer's field off of Highway 83.
Golfer Jamie Lovemark was playing the front nine when he looked up and saw the blimp on fire. "I felt sick to my stomach," Lovemark said. "I had the shakes. I felt terrible for the people inside. It was a horrible sight."
Schmidt said Thompson was wearing a fire-resistant suit and that he rode the blimp to the ground.
"I ran as fast as I could through the tall grass to get to him," Schmidt said, "and I fell three or four times. ... I was worried when I got there because the flames were so bad and hot. I wasn't sure if he was still inside or if I'd be able get to him. The flames just kept getting worse."
Schmidt said Thompson did not know what caused the damage to the skin of the blimp. "[Thompson] was saying there were a couple of panels that gave way on the envelope [of the ship], causing the hot air to pour out," Schmidt said. "And once he realized that he shut off all the fuel and tightened his seatbelt and braced for impact as best he could."
Hunter Guetzke, a 16-year-old Erin resident, said he and his father were watching the blimp from their car when it fell from the sky.
"It basically just dropped straight to the ground, and once it was on the ground it exploded three times," Guetzke said. "When it hit the ground there were three fireballs and you could hear the explosion. ...It went from holy cow to, 'I can't believe this is happening,'" he said. "It goes from that's cool to something like, 'This is going to be bad.'"