VIRGINIA — In a seeming twist of fate, the last tweets from Ginny Doyle indicate that she and Natalie Lewis were originally supposed to go up in a hot-air balloon early Friday morning, but foggy weather kept them grounded.
University of Richmond confirmed Saturday night that Doyle, the associate head coach of the UR women’s basketball team, and Lewis, the team’s director of basketball operations, were victims in the hot-air ballon crash and fire that happened just before 8 p.m. Friday evening.
“Getting ready to go up in a hot air balloon today,” Doyle’s first tweet read.
“Tried it at 6:30am but was too foggy. Will go up this evening.”
The tweet linked to her Instagram picture, and was tagged #anxiety, noting her nervousness.
A few minutes later Doyle and Lewis can be seen smiling in a gondola; fog appears heavy in the background.
“With @buffalo_spider89 got a feel for what this hot air balloon ride will be like later today,” the picture was captioned. The gondola on the balloon in the picture is different than the one seen in later pictures.
Doyle’s tweets a few minutes later shows the two a little higher off the ground, but with the balloon still tethered. Doyle can be seen smiling.
“Our tethered hot air balloon ride this morning for the rookies,” the tweet read.
Doyle and Lewis would return to the site later that evening for the kickoff VIP event to watch balloon teams take off in flight. Tickets were advance-sale only and limited to 1,500 people, based on the website info.
Corrine Geller, with Virginia State Police, said that three hot-air balloons took off from Meadow Event Park and headed northeast to a pre-approved landing zone about two miles away from the park.
Two of the balloons landed safely at the designated spot. However, as the third balloon approached to land, police said it struck a power line and burst into flames.
The pilot immediately started trying to get the fire under control, and began procedures to open the top of the balloon – since the added heat of the fire would cause the balloon to rise rapidly, police said.
At one point, the balloon and gondola separated and the balloon took off at a high rate of speed, state police said.
It may never be known if the occupants jumped or tumbled out as the gondola separated from the balloon, Geller said.
Witnesses reported harrowing accounts, and many saw the balloon crash somewhere off Ruther Glen Road near Signboard Road, which is northeast of Meadow Event Park.
The remains of two people were discovered Saturday, both were recovered in wooded areas; one body was found around midnight and the second victim’s remains were discovered around 11 a.m. behind the Caroline Pines subdivision, said spokeswoman Geller.
The subdivision is close to where Carrie Bradley lives, who snapped a picture of the balloon on fire above the trees.
Bradley was coming back from the grocery store with her two children and she pulled over as the fiery balloon was spotted above the trees.
“It was the most horrific thing I have ever witnessed,” Bradley said, and added that she will be forever haunted by what she saw and heard.
The balloon was registered to pilot Dan Kirk, who was in the balloon with Doyle and Lewis.
Mark Nelson, a friend of pilot, confirmed Kirk was an accomplished balloon pilot and ambassador to the sport.
“He had to act very rapidly before the gondola and the balloon actually separated,” Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corrine Geller said.
“Based on the witness accounts, he made every effort to do everything he could in his power to save his passengers’ lives and his own.”
Doyle’s last tweet from the account, just before 6 p.m. Friday, had an excited tone, and simply said: “Getting ready to go up!”
The responses to that final tweet are emotional, with people asking her to say she had safely landed, praying for her safety, and sending condolences.
Due to the amount of time that has passed since the fire and the fact no one has been in contact with the other people in the balloon, police have reclassified their efforts near Doswell from a rescue to a recovery mission.
State police said that over 100 state troopers and police, a Civil Air Patrol and with K-9 teams, conducted a meticulous grid search Saturday for the remains of the other person who was in the hot air balloon’s gondola.
Geller said crews are conducting grid searches because of the heavily wooded terrain and underbrush.
State police credited the public’s tips for helping organizers “triangulate” search efforts.
Geller said the balloon had been sighted as far as the King George County line and even AP Hill.
“There is the possibility due to the intensity of the fire that there may be not much left of the parachute itself,” Geller said. “And the same goes of the basket. It’s like a wicker basket.”
As a result, state police said the search was the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack.
“So finding the wreckage… is proving to be a challenge in itself, because we’re not sure how much is left of it at this point,” Geller said.
Search efforts were scaled back at sundown Saturday and will resume Sunday morning.