May 11, 2014 in Sports

Two dead, one missing after hot air balloon catches fire

Larry O’Dell Associated Press
 

DOSWELL, Va. (AP) — A University of Richmond women’s basketball team staff member was one of three occupants on a hot air balloon that drifted into a power line, burst into flames and crashed in Virginia, her family said Saturday.

The body of Natalie Lewis has not been found, family spokeswoman Julie Snyder told The Associated Press. The remains of the pilot and the other passenger, whom authorities haven’t identified, were found just under a mile apart in densely wooded areas.

More than 100 searchers spent the day scouring the woods and fields around the crash site for the third victim and any remnants of the balloon, police said. The search was being scaled back as darkness approached but was set to resume Sunday.

“The search continues for our beloved daughter and we remain hopeful and ask for your continued prayers,” Lewis’s parents, Patricia and Evan Lewis, said in a statement.

However, state police have described their search as an operation to recover remains.

Witnesses described a harrowing sight on the special preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was set to open Saturday. The festival was canceled. About 740 people attended the preview event.

On the ground, “It was complete silence,” spectator Nancy Johnson said. “There were people praying. It was horrible.”

The balloon was among 13 that lifted off Friday night from Meadow Event Park, home to the State Fair of Virginia, and was approaching a landing site nearby.

Two of the balloons landed safely before the third hit the live power line, according to police.

The pilot attempted to retain control of the balloon and snuff the fire and two passengers either jumped or fell from the gondola, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

“Then witnesses recall hearing an explosion and the fire continued to spread,” Geller said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the crash.

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