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Third victim of Caroline balloon accident recovered

The body of the third victim in Friday’s hot air balloon crash in Caroline County was recovered Sunday morning.

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the discovery was made at about 11 a.m., about 100 yards from where the second body was found.

Police have not provided the order in which the victims were found, but the parents of victim Natalie Lewis said Saturday she had not been found after the other two victims were.

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.

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

The three victims were participating Friday in the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival that was being held at the Meadow Event Park in Doswell. The balloon was attempting to land when it struck a power line and later exploded in the air in front of many witnesses, police said.

University of Richmond officials confirmed Saturday that two school employees—associate head coach for women’s basketball Ginny Doyle and director of operations for women’s basketball Natalie Lewis—were passengers in the balloon.

The balloon pilot, identified by colleagues as Daniel “Captain” Kirk of Starship Adventures, had more than 30 years of ballooning experience and won many national and state ballooning competitions. He was a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.

Police reported the discovery of the third victim just hours before the graduation ceremony was held on the University of Richmond campus.

“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.”

Caroline Sheriff Tony Lippa, who also referees women’s Division 1 basketball, put out a statement yesterday.

“Since I referee Women’s Division 1 Basketball, I knew both Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis,” he said. “My heart goes out to their family along with the University of Richmond and the Atlantic 10 families.”

A total of 13 balloons took flight Friday, and all but that one landed safely in predesignated areas, Geller said.

Other balloon pilots from the ground said that the pilot of the ill-fated balloon was using proper safety protocol after it struck 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.”

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

Search teams included the state police, the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office and Fire and Rescue, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Civil Air Patrol and multiple K–9 units.

Geller said the search ended at sundown Saturday and resumed at 6:30 a.m. Sunday with targeted grid searches that covered an area roughly a quarter mile wide and 3 miles long near the Caroline Pines subdivision and the intersection of Signboard and Ruther Glen roads.

“The grid searching is done by foot and is a very meticulous and methodical process,” she said.

Organizers of the balloon festival canceled the event and have decided not to continue it in the future.

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

Greg Hicks, vice president of the Meadow Event Park, said the organization has agreed to set up a fund to benefit the families of the victims and expects to release more details this week.

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

Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419