CAROLINE COUNTY, Va. (WWBT, CNN, May 11, 2014) – The bodies of two of three victims have been recovered, and the body of the third victim is still missing after Friday night’s tragic hot air balloon crash, officials said. According to WWBT, search and rescue crews located the remains of the balloon Pilot, Dan Kirk, as well as the remains of Associate Head Coach of the University of Richmond’s Women’s Basketball Team, Ginny Doyle before noon Saturday. Police said the hot air balloon struck power lines, caught fire mid-flight, and then crashed 25 miles north of Richmond.
The University of Richmond confirmed that two members of its Women’s Basketball staff were among the victims of the balloon crash. Ginny Doyle, associate head women’s basketball coach, and Natalie Lewis, director of basketball operations, were aboard the balloon that crashed and were killed. In a statement, University of Richmond President Edward Ayers said, “As alumnae, classmates, and colleagues – and as invaluable and devoted mentors for our student-athletes – Ginny and Natalie have been beloved members of our community. Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many.”
Crews are searching grounds that could be difficult to navigate in the dark, and police said a full scale effort is expected to resume Sunday morning. Two employees of the University of Richmond Women’s Basketball Program were among the three victims, authorities stated.
As of Sunday morning, police have found debris from the hot air balloon, but have not yet located the balloon or its basket.
The Virginia State Police said the fire escalated into an explosion in a matter of seconds. Officials said the pilot of the hot air balloon made every effort to try to contain the fire.
“(The pilot) was making every measure possible. They take several measures to vent the top of the balloon, because what happens is the fire actually increases the heat and that actually makes the balloon rise rather rapidly. So he was doing his efforts to vent the balloon to help try and bring it down from rising so quickly. He was trying to manage the fire, put it out best he could, of course, provide the safety measures for his two passengers. Unfortunately though, this was a very rapid event, a very rapid escalation. And then you have the explosion, so it was a matter of seconds, not minutes, that he had to act very rapidly before the gondola and the balloon actually separated,” stated Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police.
Witnesses said they were horrified.
“You could hear them screaming, ‘please dear God, sweet Jesus help us, we’re going to die, oh my God please help us,’” said Carrie Bradley, a witness.
The deadly crash happened just hours before the scheduled start of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival. More than twenty hot air balloons were scheduled for this year’s Festival, but organizers have canceled the event.