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Six San Antonio Lives Cut Short In Balloon Crash

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Brian Neill booked a hot air balloon ride for he and his wife Tressie as a gift for the couple’s 23rd wedding anniversary. This week, the pair’s passing will be marked by a moment of silence at the prayer group they led each week.

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“It’s been like a punch in the gut,” says San Antonio CityChurch Pastor Michele Jech. “They woke up that morning for an anniversary gift, going to go watch a sunrise and go on a hot air balloon ride. You just never know.”

The Neills were two of the 16 lives lost in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in U.S. history on Saturday in Central Texas. They are among the six San Antonians whose lives were cut short—on what was supposed to be a day of celebration.

Pastor Jech says she’d often see the Neills hand-in-hand. They leave behind two daughters—ages 16 and 20. The family has been part of the church community for about a decade.

“We talk about, at CityChurch, that the church is not a building, the church is not a place that we go to, but we are the church,” says Jech. “People are the church. The Neill family lives that out. They always have.”

While the Neills were celebrating a long marriage, Matt and Sunday Rowan had only been married five months.

The morning balloon ride was a birthday gift to Matt from Sunday—but it had taken them a long time to actually schedule the flight.

For the Rowans’ friends and relatives, the day of the accident felt like a bad dream.

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“We had pictures coming from them, because they were social butterflies, so we had pictures coming from them and then the pictures just stopped,” says Robin Pennick-Funderburk, Matt’s aunt.

“As time went by, the pieces just started to fall together that it was them. And it was unbelievable. It was awful. We just wanted to turn back the clock, but we know it doesn’t work like that.”

The Rowans, both 34, met in College Station back in high school, long before they got together for good. Funeral services are scheduled there this weekend.

Matt had been a chemistry professor at several San Antonio colleges and had just started work at the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research at Brooke Army Medical Center.  Sunday was mother to her 5-year-old son, Jett.

“They were such a prime example of what to do right to make the world a better place, and we feel such a great loss that they aren’t here anymore,” Pennick-Funderburk  says.

Loved ones in San Antonio—and across the country—are also feeling the loss of 23-year-old Paige Brabson and her mother Lorilee Brabson. Paige had arranged the hot air balloon trip with her mom as a Mother’s Day present.

Family say Lorilee, Paige and Paige’s 16-year-old sister Grace were best friends.

“They did everything together, they loved being with each other,” says Lorilee’s cousin Julie Rocha. “They had such an amazing bond and got along so well.”

Rocha says her family has been shattered by the terrible news, but believes Lorilee and Paige are now in a better place. 

“One of Lorilee’s last posts was a picture of the two of them and it said that it was so peaceful up there,” says Rocha.  “Through the tragedy, we take some comfort in knowing that they’re in peace.”

Paige leaves behind a baby daughter, Marylee, who turns 1 this month.

“She was a new mother, an awesome mother of an 11-month-old daughter,” says Jodi Hayakawa, another cousin of Lorilee. “ I just hope we can raise Marylee to know her mother—her true mother—and grandmother.”

Marylee’s family is raising money for her aid through GoFundMe. A similar page was created for the Neills.