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Mistaken Autopsy Report Blames Ketamine for Tragic Hot Air Balloon Crash

After publishing the initial report, the medical examiner updated it to show that medical professionals administered ketamine in an attempt to save the pilot’s life.

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A pilot involved in a hot air balloon crash in January resulting in four fatalities (the pilot, plus three passengers) is at the center of a multi-pronged reporting blunder by both medical professionals and the media, and it’s shedding light on the harm caused by medical misinformation.

The pilot of the craft, Cornelius van der Walt, was said to have high levels of ketamine in his bloodstream at the scene of the crash, according to a forensic report from the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office in Arizona, CNN reports. The original autopsy report noted that van der Walt, who was 37 years old, didn’t have a prescription for ketamine and that it “wasn’t used in resuscitation efforts.”

But after publishing the report on April 4, which strongly suggested that van der Walt was operating the balloon while high on high-dose ketamine, new information came to light 24 hours later. The medical examiner’s office added a crucial detail to its report: Emergency responders had, in fact, administered ketamine to van der Walt in an attempt to save his life, the New York Times reports.

By the time this new information came to light, however, headlines across the world subsequently read, “Hot air balloon pilot had ketamine in his system at the time of a crash that killed 4,” The Associated Press published. “Pilot in deadly hot air balloon crash had ketamine in system,” wrote The Times of London. Most of the headlines heavily suggested that the drug was the reason for the accident when, in fact, it was not.

Despite many publications changing their headlines or publishing new stories, the van der Walt family has been reeling from the sensational and inaccurate coverage.

“Immediately after the media began to report on the situation, hateful and disgusting messages were sent to various people involved via social media,” said John Vanca, van der Walt’s best friend and business partner, the New York Times reports. “All of this has caused quite a bit of emotional duress not only for the family of Cornelius, but I am sure to all of the other families involved as well.”

READ: Matthew Perry’s Death Proves We Don’t Know Much About Ketamine

The crash occurred on January 14, 2024, in Eloy, Arizona. The aircraft had 13 people aboard: the pilot, four passengers, and eight skydivers. Everything seemed fine when the skydivers safely jumped out of the craft. But, then, a “catastrophic” issue occurred with its envelope—the balloon-like part—which led to its crash, according to authorities, CNN reports.

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According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is looking into the crash, witnesses and cell phone footage captured the hot air balloon descending with its envelope deflated and dragging above it. The burner flame ignited intermittently on its way down.

“The envelope remained attached to the basket and showed thermal damage near the mouth of the envelope,” the NTSB’s preliminary report states. “The sewn rim tape material near the top of the envelope was frayed, and several of the panels were damaged.”

READ: There’s a Nationwide Ketamine Shortage—and Patients Are Suffering

The police named the four victims of the crash. They were van der Walt from Eloy, Arizona; Chayton Wiescholek, 28, from Union City, Michigan; Kaitlynn Bartrom, also 28, from Andrews, Indiana; and Atahan Kiliccote, 24, who lived in Cupertino, California.

This story reminds us of the oversimplified reporting around Matthew Perry’s death, which heavily focused on a high dose of ketamine being in his system and not that he drowned. When used responsibly, ketamine is a relatively safe drug that’s difficult to overdose on by itself. And, likely, Perry would still be alive if he hadn’t consumed ketamine and got in a pool.

“Using sedative drugs [such as ketamine] in a pool or hot tub, especially when you’re alone, is extremely risky and, sadly, [in the case of Mathew Perry] it’s fatal,” Dr. Andrew Stolbach, a medical toxicologist at Johns Hopkins, told PBS after reviewing the autopsy report, DoubleBlind reported earlier this year.

Sloppy reporting by journalists and medical professionals around such stigmatized topics perpetuates the harms inflicted by the drug war. Everyone needs to do better.

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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