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Body of third balloon victim found

At 6:30 a.m. Sunday (May 11), full-scale search efforts for the third person and balloon wreckage resumed in Caroline County, Va. The 100-plus personnel from Virginia State Police, Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, Caroline County Fire and Rescue, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Civil Air Patrol, and multiple search-and-rescue teams (to include canine teams) fanned out across the area near Caroline Pines Subdivision to expand their search efforts.

On Saturday, search teams spent the day conducting targeted grid searches that covered roughly an area ¼ of a mile wide and three miles long. The grid searching is done by foot and is a very meticulous and methodical process. On Sunday morning, teams continued those efforts. At about 11 a.m., Sunday, the remains of the third occupant were discovered. This discovery was approximately 100 yards north of where the second occupant was found Saturday.

Now that the male pilot and two female passengers have all been located, this concludes the large-scale search efforts of the operation. Virginia State Police and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators are now concentrating on locating the balloon wreckage and evidence collection.

Anyone with photos or video of the balloon crash is asked to submit them by email to the NTSB ateyewitnessreport@ntsb.gov.

Two University of Richmond sports officials and a balloon pilot have been identified as the three occupants of a hot air balloon that crashed into a power line in Caroline County on Friday.

Virginia State Police announced Saturday that two of the three bodies were located in a heavily wooded area about 1,500 yards apart and the search was still on for the third person last night.

University of Richmond President Edward Ayers confirmed that two school employees—Associate head coach for women’s basketball Ginny Doyle and director of operations for women’s basketball Natalie Lewis—were among the three aboard the fallen hot air balloon.

Natalie Lewis, left, 24, and Ginny Doyle were aboard the hot air balloon that hit a power line in Caroline County on Friday.

“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,” Ayers said in a statement. “Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many.”

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

Doyle, a former Richmond basketball standout who graduated in 1992, has served on the Spiders’ staff for 16 years. During her tenure at Richmond, she helped guide the Spiders to nine winning seasons, an at-large berth to the 2005 NCAA Tournament, five consecutive postseason appearances and a first-ever appearance in the Atlantic 10 Championship final in 2009.

As a student–athlete, Doyle was a two-time all-conference player, leading the Spiders to the 1991 CAA Championship and NCAA tournament. She is the program’s career leader in free-throw percentage and set the NCAA Division I record for consecutive free throws made with 66, a mark that stood for 18 years.

Lewis graduated from Richmond in 2011 and began her professional career with Spider Athletics in 2012. As an undergraduate, Lewis was a championship swimmer and four-year varsity letter winner at Richmond, serving twice as team captain. She was on three Atlantic 10 swimming championship teams. She also was a student government cabinet member and graduated as a Spider Scholar Athlete.

Family spokeswoman Julie Snyder told The Associated Press on Saturday that Lewis’ body is the one that has not been found.

Snyder called Lewis “an amazing persona and a strong persona, an athlete engaged to be married.”

Her family is holding on to hope that she may still be found alive.

“The search continues for our beloved daughter and we remain hopeful and ask for your continued prayers,” the parents of Natalie Lewis said in a statement.

The university has arranged access to counselors for faculty, staff and students in light of the tragedy.

Friend Mark Nelson of Virginia Balloons confirmed the name of the pilot as Daniel “Captain” Kirk of Starship

Daniel "Captain" Kirk

Daniel “Captain” Kirk

Adventures. The balloon was also known as the Starship.

“He is going to be missed by all of his ballooning friends across America, not just Virginia,” Nelson said in a phone interview with The Free Lance–Star. “He was a true ambassador to the sport of ballooning and he was one of the best competitive pilots in America.”

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the first body was found early Saturday near a brush fire close to Brownstone Road in Ruther Glen. The second body was found around 11 a.m. Saturday about 1,500 yards south in a wooded area near the Caroline Pines subdivision.

The first body “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,” she said at a press conference Saturday morning.

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.”

She declined to confirm the identities or genders of those found until a positive identification was made by the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Richmond.

“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.

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.

Doyle posted several pictures on her Twitter and Instagram page before the fatal flight that claimed her life.

“Getting ready to go up in a hot air balloon today. Tried it at 6:30 a.m. but was too foggy. Will go up this evening #anxiety,” she posted with a picture of herself in front of a gondola. She posted for the last time at 6:45 p.m.

More than 100 people were searching for the third occupant of the hot air balloon that caught fire Friday night during the first day of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival at the Meadow Event Park in Doswell.

Efforts were scaled back at sundown due to the difficulty of navigating the terrain in the dark.

However, the command post and state police will remain on scene overnight to secure the perimeter of the search area, she said. At daybreak Sunday, full-scale search efforts will begin again.

She said the rural area that they are searching in is very dense and is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

0509balloon“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.

A total of 13 balloons took flight Friday, and all but that one landed safely in pre-designated areas, she said.

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 and then exploded around 8 p.m. Friday.

“He was taking every measure possible,” Geller said. “Based on the witness accounts, he did everything he could to save his passengers’ lives and himself.”

Kirk, according to his company website, has more than 30 years of ballooning experience and won many national and state ballooning competitions. He also served in and retired from the U.S. Army.

State police do not believe weather was a factor in the accident, she said.

The organizers of the balloon festival have canceled the event and are doubtful if there will be another event next year.

“Our thoughts are with the families and colleagues of the three people in the tragic May 9 balloon accident,” they posted on their website. “The Meadow Event Park staff and festival organizers are devastated, and we continue to offer support and prayers for all those affected.”

They have agreed to set up a fund to benefit the families of the victims and plan to release more details next week.

Refunds of advance ticket sales will be offered to ticket holders.

Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419

psmith@fredericksburg.com

 

 

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