Third body found after hot air balloon burns, crashes in Virginia


Natalie Lewis and Ginny Doyle (left to right) (Credit: University of Richmond)

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RUTHER GLEN, Va. — Authorities have found the remains of the third occupant of the hot air balloon that burst into flames at a Virginia festival, police said Sunday.

Now investigators are trying to determine what made the balloon drift into power lines, catch fire and crash, killing the pilot and two passengers.

Donald Kirk told CNN on Sunday that his son, Daniel Kirk, was on the balloon when it crashed. The 66-year-old Army veteran had been piloting balloons for more than 30 years, lived for flying and never flew if the weather conditions weren’t right, his father said.

“He was a very good pilot,” Donald Kirk said. “Something happened, I just don’t know what happened.”

Two members of the University of Richmond women’s basketball program were among those aboard, the university said.

Witnesses captured photographs of the balloon after it burst into flames Friday night and crashed into the countryside at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival about 25 miles north of Richmond. Some reported seeing two people either jump or fall from the basket at a dizzying height.

Investigators found the remains of two occupants on Saturday. They located the remains of the third occupant on Sunday morning, Virginia State Police said.

The remains were found about 100 yards north of where one of the occupant’s remains were found on Saturday, Corinne Geller of the Virginia State Police said.

Police and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

Norm Hyde, spokesman for Meadow Event Park, which hosted the festival, said Federal Aviation Administration inspectors were on site Friday, checking balloons and safety records before the balloons took off.

All the balloons’ safety records were up to date, he said.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said she couldn’t confirm whether FAA inspectors were at the Virginia festival, but she said they “routinely conduct surveillance at air shows, balloon festivals and other aviation events.”

Before flight, anxiety

Ginny Doyle, associate head basketball coach at the University of Richmond, and Natalie Lewis, director of basketball operations, were on the balloon, the school said in a statement.

“Words cannot begin to express our sorrow,” said Keith Gill, the university’s director of athletics. “We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones.”

Doyle was a former star player for the school who played a key role in recruiting, according to her biography on the university’s website.

She posted on social media about her plans to fly in the balloon on Friday, sharing several pictures of the festival.

“Getting ready to go up in a hot air balloon today,” she wrote on Instagram. “Tried it at 6:30am but was too foggy. Will go up this evening #anxiety.”

Balloon hit power line as it descended

Weather conditions are one of the elements investigators are looking at, NTSB air safety investigator Heidi Moats said.

There was no inclement weather at the time and, so far, officials don’t believe those conditions played a role in the crash, Geller said Saturday.

Thirteen hot air balloons had been soaring on the eve of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival in Doswell, and three were landing close to each other. 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,” Geller said. But then there was an explosion, and the basket and balloon separated.

Those aboard the balloon pleaded for their lives, witness 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.

Organizers canceled the festival after the accident.

Balloon fire

Natalie Lewis and Ginny Doyle (left to right)
Natalie Lewis and Ginny Doyle (left to right)

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