Search continues after hot-air balloon crash in Caroline
UPDATE 2: A second body was found in a heavilty wooded area near the Caroline Pines subdivsion in Caroline County around 11 a.m., State Police said.
Corrine Geller of the Virginia State Police said it was located about 1,500 yards north of where the first body was found.
She declined to provide any identifying information at this time pending results from the Medical Examiner’s Office.
More than 100 personnel are still searching for the third occupant of the hot air ballon that caught on fire Friday evening. They are divided into teams and doing grid searches, she said.
“We will stay here until the third person is found,” she said.
She said the rural area that they are searching in is very dense and is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“We still have not located the basket or the balloon, but we continue to find debris that would have been in the balloon,” she said. “Finding the wreckage is proving to be a challenge in itself because there may not be much left of it.”
There were reported sightings of the balloon top as far away as King George and Fort A.P. Hill, she said.
She added that a total of 13 balloons took flight Friday, and all but that one landed safely during the inaugural Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival.
Other balloon pilots from the ground could see that the pilot on the crashed balloon was using a proper safety protocol after it hit a power line.
“He was taking every measure possible,” Geller said. “Based on the witness accounts, he did everything he could to save his passenger’s lives and himself.”
State Police do not believe weather was a factor in the accident, she said.
Another press conference is scheduled for 3 p.m.
UPDATE: Virginia State Police confirmed this morning that the body of one of the occupants was located around midnight in a heavily wooded area, where a large brush fire was reported.
“It wasn’t far from the drop zone, which is where they were supposed to land and not far from the power line that was hit,” Virginia State Police Spokeswoman Corinne Geller said at a press conference Saturday morning.
The remains have been sent to the office of the chief medical examiner in Richmond for positive identification, she said.
She said some debris was also found. She didn’t specify what type of items were found, but said they are “certain things that would be associated with the balloon.”
The search is still on for the other two missing occupants of the balloon.
“Because of the time that has transpired and the fact that we have not been able to get in contact, we are transitioning from a rescue operation to a recovery operation at this time,” she said.
They are not releasing the names of any of the missing people.
Geller said they are also aware of reports that two people may have “exited” the basket.
“We have had reports and we’ve also seen video which seems to have two people that have possibly leaped or fell,” she said.
She said she hopes the daylight will help authorities in the search.
Another news conference is scheduled for noon with any further updates.
VIRGINIA STATE POLICE RELEASED THE FOLLOWING UPDATE OVERNIGHT:
“Shortly before 8 p.m. Friday (May 9, 2014), three hot air balloons took flight from Meadow Event Park as part of an ongoing hot air balloon festival. The balloons headed north of the park to a designated landing zone in a field off Ruther Glen Road. Two of the balloons landed there safely. During its descent, the third balloon came in contact with a live utility line. The contact sparked an immediate fire.
“Based on witness accounts, the pilot attempted to regain control of the balloon and manage the fire. At one point, the balloon’s two passengers leapt from the basket/gondola. Then witnesses recall hearing an explosion and the fire continued to spread. The gondola and the balloon then separated.
“Virginia State Police, Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, Caroline County Fire and Rescue, and Henrico County Police spent the evening and overnight hours searching the immediate area for the balloon’s three occupants and the wreckage of the balloon and basket. The FAA also responded to the scene Friday evening. The NTSB has been notified. Searches have been conducted by air and on the ground of the rural, heavily-wooded terrain.
“The investigation into the incident continues at this hour (4 a.m.), as do the search efforts. At daybreak, additional state police resources are being brought in to expand the search.”
BY PORTSIA SMITH / THE FREE LANCE-STAR
An intense search was underway for three people in Caroline County Friday night after a hot air balloon struck a power line, erupted in flames in flight and apparently crashed.
Police and emergency workers from several agencies were searching the area around Meadow Event Park, where the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival was scheduled this weekend. It has now been canceled.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corrine Geller said they were notified at 7:56 p.m. by the Caroline Sheriff’s Office that there was a possible crash near the Meadow Event Park.
“Witnesses say they did see it crash,” Geller said at a news conference. “At this point, no wreckage has been found.”
She said it appears that the gondola, or basket, of a hot air balloon containing three people struck a power line in the air above Ruther Glen and Signboard roads in Caroline, just northeast of the home of the State Fair of Virginia.
Debra Ferguson, who lives off of Signboard Road, said some hot air balloons landed safely in her yard.
She said one of the men pointed up at one of the other balloons and mentioned that they may be in trouble.
“As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there,” she said. “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 so high up and so far away,” she said. “It was like a match, poof, and then it was gone.”
A staging area and command post was set up in a field near Signboard Road in Ruther Glen.
Geller said multiple law enforcement agencies were on hand to conduct what was restricted to a ground search and it was expected to go through the night.
Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration were on the scene because the hot air balloon is considered an aircraft.
Caroline County resident Paula Dustin, her husband and two children headed to the event at the Meadow Friday night to meet friends for some family fun.
She said they arrived about 6 p.m. and about a half hour later watched the balloons inflate and take off to the north toward Carmel Church. Most of the balloons had two or three people on board.
After 15 or so balloons had lifted off, a friend said to her, “That doesn’t look right.”
They could see a balloon off in the distance was in trouble.
“We saw a glow, and you could tell the bottom of the balloon was in flames,” Dustin said.
A band was playing at the time, and a lot of the people in the crowd did not appear to be aware of what was happening, she said. The people in her group saw something falling from the balloon—possibly the basket—and whatever it was, it was on fire.
Afterward, the balloon kept floating for a time, and no flames were present.
Dustin said it was horrifying to see the burning balloon, and it was especially upsetting for her 11-year-old son.
“We were all trying to think positively, to hope there was a way [the people] got off safely,” she said. “You knew that probably wasn’t the case.”
A formal announcement about the accident was never made. Instead, a heavy downpour started and the crowd dispersed, Dustin said.
This was to have been the first such event for the Richmond area.
The festival had sold nearly 4,000 advance-purchased tickets, said Farm Bureau spokesman Greg Hicks. The Farm Bureau owns the site.
“It’s a tragic thing, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families, but we don’t know for sure what has happened,” Hicks said.
The first night kicked off with live music, food and drinks.
Authorities ask that anyone with information about the fire or the crash should contact the Sheriff’s Office at 804/994-5754.
Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419