cbc.ca (© Copyright: (C) Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.cbc.ca/aboutcbc/discover/termsofuse.html#Rss)
Updated: Sun, 11 May 2014 21:43:57 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Virginia hot air balloon crash: pilot's body found



Search teams arrives at a command post for the recovery efforts from a hot air balloon accident in Ruther Glen, Va., Saturday, May 10, 2014. The body of one occupant of a hot air balloon that caught fire after striking a power line and crashed Friday has been recovered and police searched Saturday for two others feared dead, Virginia State Police said. (© AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Search teams arrives at a command post for the recovery efforts from a hot air balloon accident in Ruther Glen, Va., Saturday, May 10, 2014. The body of one occupant of a hot air balloon that caught fire after striking a power line and crashed Friday has been recovered and police searched Saturday for two others feared dead, Virginia State Police said. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) The Associated Press

Searchers on Sunday found the body of the third victim from the crash of a hot air balloon that drifted into a power line, burst into flames and fell into a heavily wooded area in Virginia, police said.

Police have not released the victims' names, but family members and the University of Richmond said associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were passengers. Veteran hot air balloon pilot Daniel T. Kirk was at the controls.

Donald Kirk on Sunday confirmed his son Daniel was piloting the balloon. The balloon was registered to Daniel at an address in the Dover, Delaware, area. His company's website said he had been a hot air balloon pilot for more than 20 years and had a commercial balloon pilot license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Steve Hoffmann, who said he built the Eagle balloon that Kirk was piloting and taught him to fly, called Kirk "one of the nicest guys in the world" and a consummate professional.

"He was very careful," Hoffmann said. "Something definitely went wrong. This is not the kind of flying Dan would do."

The university's athletic director Keith Gill released a statement on Sunday that said "words cannot being to express our sorrow."

"We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones," he said.

Doyle, who graduated from Richmond in 1992 after a standout basketball career, served on the team staff for 16 years after that — including nine winning seasons. She earned all-conference honours twice as a player.

A spokeswoman for Lewis' family, Julie Snyder, called Lewis "an amazing person and a strong person, an athlete engaged to be married."Lewis just completed her second year as director of basketball operations for the women's team, according to a profile on the university's website. The Buffalo, New York, native was a four-year letter winner and two-time captain of the Spiders' swim team.

"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," university President Edward L. Ayers said in the news release.

The university cancelled two weekend baseball games and held a moment of silence at commencement Saturday for its law school.

Amber Battle, who will be a senior next season, said from her home in Apex, N.C., that her coach, Michael Shafer, was keeping the team updated via text messages.

He told them that he was also at the balloon festival.

"I just can't believe this happened," she said.

'It was horrible'

Witnesses to the crash described a harrowing sight on the special preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was set to open Saturday. The festival was cancelled. About 740 people attended the preview event.

On the ground, "It was complete silence," spectator Nancy Johnson said. "There were people praying. It was horrible."

The balloon was among 13 that lifted off Friday night from Meadow Event Park, home to the State Fair of Virginia, and was approaching a landing site nearby. Two of the balloons landed safely before the third hit the live power line, according to police.

The pilot attempted to retain control of the balloon and snuff the fire and two passengers either jumped or fell from the gondola, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

"Then witnesses recall hearing an explosion and the fire continued to spread," Geller said.

She said another pilot interviewed by investigators described how the pilot tried to open vents to release extra-hot air in an attempt to keep the balloon from rising faster.

"Based on witness accounts, he did everything he could to try to save the passengers' lives," Geller said.

'A very, very safe form of aviation'

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the crash.

Troy Bradley, past president of the Balloon Federation of America, said most serious accidents on balloons — including fires, electrocution or baskets becoming severed — happen after hitting power lines. Most of the time it's due to pilot error, he said.

Fatal accidents happen less often than with other types of aircraft, Bradley said.

"Hundreds of thousands of flights will go without any notice. That one that hits the news gets all the attention, but ballooning is a very, very safe form of aviation."

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region had been scheduled to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the venue.

Johnson, who went as a spectator to the festival with her husband, photographed the balloon after the accident. She said the crash near the park about 25 miles north of Richmond occurred in an instant.

"One minute the balloons were hovering in a field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky," she said.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery and heard people yelling.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," she told WWBT TV.

more video