Balloon send-off memorializes balloonist hero

The Ben Hill community gathered to send off hundreds of balloons honoring Ed Restaino / Sarah Bleau

"Ed's last words were I'm sorry."

Victor Hulett says Ed Restaino, 63, was communicating with him via radio during his final balloon flight. Hulett says his last words are a reflection of the type of man he was.

"He thought more about his friends and about what they were going to have to go through," says Hulett, who was working on the ground level that day.

It was a life many didn't know personally, but after hearing the story of Restaino giving his life to save those of his friends and skydivers they wanted to come honor the hero.

"I heard all the stories about how he saved the people in the balloon, told them to jump out, and risked his life to save other people. Something needed to be done," says Laura Parks, the women whose small Facebook prayer chain turned into a balloon send-off memorial that many, she say, observed across the nation.

Hulett says Restaino was communicating with him over the radio during his last balloon flight. He says a sudden storm system came through that fateful day, and instead of risking hitting trees during an emergency landing, he chose to save the lives of his friends and skydivers.

"Rather than risk hurting them, he gained altitude for them to be able to jump. And they did. It was inevitable he's going to go into the cloud and he makes the decision to try to climb over it and as he did it sucked him into it," says Hulett.

He says many people turned out during the search and he's not surprised just as many turned out for the memorial. He says that's just the kind of community Ben Hill is.

Friday night, donations were collected for a memorial fund for Restaino's family.

Hulett says this accident is causing changed regarding how they conduct future balloon flights in hopes of avoiding similar tragedies.

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