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2 bodies found, 1 missing after hot air balloon burns, crashes in Virginia

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(Courtesy Nancy Johnson via CNN)

DOSWELL, Va. — After an all-night search in a heavily wooded area of rural Virginia, authorities found two bodies from a hot air balloon crash and continued efforts to locate another person aboard.

Witnesses captured images of the balloon after it drifted into power lines, burst into flames Friday night and crashed into the countryside 25 miles north of Richmond.

Some reported seeing two people jump — or fall — from the gondola at a dizzying height.

The basket and the balloon separated at some point; neither had been found as of Saturday morning.

“We are now transitioning from a rescue operation to a recovery operation at this time,” Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller told reporters.

One body was recovered, but police declined to identify the person right away.

The search continued for the other two occupants.

“Now that we have daybreak, we’re hoping this will definitely expedite the search process,” Geller said.

Searchers across the state, aided by K-9 teams, found a debris field with items that would have been inside the gondola, but not the basket itself, Geller said.

Three hot air balloons had been soaring on the eve of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival in Doswell. Two landed safely, Geller said, but as the third balloon descended, it hit a power line, sparking a fire that spread quickly.

The pilot began doing his safety maneuvers and “took every step to manage the situation,” the spokeswoman said. But then an explosion was heard and the basket and balloon separated.

Two inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the scene overnight, and the National Transportation Safety Board will conduct its own investigation.

The remainder of the balloon festival was canceled, organizers said on the event’s website.

Those aboard the balloon pleaded for their lives, Carrie Hager-Bradley told CNN affiliate WWBT.

“They were just screaming for anybody to help them. ‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help, I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die,'” she said.

Her daughter told her she saw someone falling out of the basket. Then Hager-Bradley also saw someone plummeting to the ground.

Twenty balloon flying teams were expected to participate in the festival.

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