Three feared dead after balloon crash

Two staff members of the University of Richmond women’s basketball team were among three people feared dead after a hot air balloon crashed in Virginia, a family member and a spokeswoman said Saturday.

Ginny Doyle, the team’s associate head coach, and Natalie Lewis, the team’s director of basketball operations, were aboard the Friday flight.

Raymond Doyle said his sister was one of the passengers. A spokeswoman, Julie Snyder, said Lewis also was a passenger and that her body had not been found.

The remains of the pilot and one of the passengers have been recovered after being found about 1,500 yards apart in densely wooded areas, officials said.

More than 100 searchers were called in to scour the woods and fields of the central Virginia site of the crash for the third victim and any remnants of the balloon or its basket, state police said.

“The search continues for our beloved daughter and we remain hopeful and ask for your continued prayers,” Lewis’s parents, Patricia and Evan Lewis, said in a statement.

Snyder called Lewis “an amazing persona and a strong persona, an athlete engaged to be married.”

Lewis was in her third year as director of basketball operations for the Richmond women’s basketball program, according to a profile on the university’s website. She was a four-year letter winner and two-time captain of the Spiders’ swim team. The Buffalo, N.Y., native attended Nardin Academy high school.

Doyle had played basketball for the university in the 1990s as a starting guard.

Witnesses described a harrowing sight on the special preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was set to open Saturday. The festival was canceled.

On the ground, “It was complete silence,” eyewitness 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 who was 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.

An air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report would be released on the crash in 10 days. Heidi Moats said investigators were seeking records on the balloon and the pilot.

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.”