Pilot still missing after deadly hot-air balloon crash in Virginia

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by NATALIE DiBLASIO

USA TODAY

Posted on May 11, 2014 at 2:14 PM

More than 100 searchers are scouring the woods and fields of Virginia for the missing pilot of a hot-air balloon that went down in a fiery crash in Caroline County Friday evening, leaving two passengers dead.

The University of Richmond confirmed that the two victims were women's basketball associate head coach Ginny Doyle, 44, and Natalie Lewis, 24. Their bodies were located Saturday about a mile apart.

Pilot Daniel T. Kirk, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in the military for 37 years, has more than 30 years of ballooning experience, according to his father.

The incident happened Friday evening in Caroline County, Va., after several hot-air balloons took off from Meadow Event Park as part of a special preview for Saturday's Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival. Two balloons landed safely, but as Kirk's balloon attempted to land, it struck a power line and burst into flames.

"It contacted power lines, caught on fire and crashed in a wooded area," says Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

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, of the NTSB, said investigators were seeking records on the balloon and the pilot.

Festival officials canceled Saturday's festival. The tragedy also casts a pall over the university's Sunday afternoon undergraduate commencement.

"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," said President Edward L. Ayers in a statement. "Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many."

Doyle, who earned all-conference honors twice as a Richmond basketball player before graduating in 1992, had served on the team for 16 years.

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

A spokeswoman for Lewis' family, Julie Snyder, called Lewis "an amazing person and a strong person, an athlete engaged to be married."

Lewis had a scholarship to swim at the University of Richmond and was a two-time team capitain. She was hired to direct the school's women's basketball operations after graduating in 2011, according to The Buffalo News. The newspaperreported that Lewis had been a star swimmer at Buffalo's Nardin Academy before attending the University of Richmond. Scott Vanderzell, her former coach with the Tonawanda Titans swimming program, said Lewis "was one of the elite swimmers to come out of Western New York."

Investigators found some pieces of the balloon, but are still searching for major components, Knudson said late Saturday afternoon.

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region were set to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Meadow Event Park.

"It's just a shocking situation for everyone," Hicks said.

Based on witness accounts, Kirk attempted to regain control of the balloon and manage the fire. At one point, the balloon's two passengers jumped from the basket. Witnesses recall hearing an explosion, and the fire continued to spread. The basket and the balloon then separated.

"As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there," witness Debra Ferguson told The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va. "All I heard was, 'Oh my God, Oh my God,' and all you saw was the top of the balloon still flying, but all of the basket was gone. All of the flames just disappeared. ... It was like a match — poof — and then it was gone."

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery store and heard people yelling, according to WWBT-TV.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," the station quoted her as saying. "'Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die,'" Hager-Bradley said she heard one person screaming.

There have been hundreds of hot air balloon accidents in the U.S. and overseas, according to records from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The majority aren't fatal. However, in February 2013, at least 19 people died after a hot air balloon flying over Luxor, Egypt's city of pyramids, caught fire and plunged down into a sugar cane field.

"Ballooning is normally a very safe, routine activity," Glen Moyer, editor of Ballooning magazine, the in-house publication of the 2,200-member Balloon Federation of America said after the Luxor crash. "It's an activity that thousands of people participate in all the time and do so safely."

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

In the U.S., hot air balloons -- which use propane gas to heat the air that rises into the balloon and lifts it -- are built to standards approved by the FAA, Moyer said. In order to get a license, pilots must demonstrate a proficiency in emergency skills as well as the ability to operate the balloon. They then must go through a flight review every two years, he said.

Contributing: Robin Webb, Laura Petrecca, Donna Leinwand Leger; Gary Strauss Associated Press

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