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Balloon crash looms over U. of Richmond graduation

DOSWELL, Va. (AP) - Preparations for the University of Richmond's graduation ceremony were tinged with sadness Sunday, just days after two members of its athletic staff were killed when a hot air balloon crashed in Virginia after hitting a power line.

Associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were two of the three people aboard the balloon who were killed Friday after the balloon drifted into a power line, burst into flames and fell into a heavily wooded area about 25 miles north of Richmond.

"Words cannot begin to express our sorrow," Keith Gill, the school's athletic director, said in a statement. "We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones."

Donald Kirk on Sunday said his son, Daniel T. Kirk, was piloting the balloon. The balloon was registered to Daniel at an address in the Dover, Delaware, area. His company's website said he had been a hot air balloon pilot for more than 20 years and had a commercial balloon pilot license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Hot Air Balloon Was Carrying 2 Richmond Basketball Officials

Two bodies have been found so far. Searchers continued to look for the third body Sunday. Undergraduate commencement at University of Richmond was scheduled for later in the day.

Lewis just completed her second year as director of basketball operations for the women's team, according to a profile on the university's website. The Buffalo, New York, native was a four-year letter winner and two-time captain of the Spiders' swim team.

Lewis was "an amazing person and a strong person, an athlete engaged to be married," according to family spokeswoman Julie Snyder.

Doyle, who graduated from Richmond in 1992 after a standout basketball career, served on the team staff for 16 years after that - including nine winning seasons. She earned all-conference honors twice as a player.

"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," university president Edward L. Ayers said.

The university canceled two weekend baseball games and held a moment of silence at commencement Saturday for its law school.

Amber Battle, who will be a senior next season, said from her home in Apex, North Carolina that her coach, Michael Shafer, was keeping the team updated via text messages.

He told them that he was also at the balloon festival.

"I just can't believe this happened," she said.

Witnesses to the crash 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.

She said another pilot interviewed by investigators described how the pilot tried to open vents to release extra-hot air in an attempt to keep the balloon from rising faster.

"Based on witness accounts, he did everything he could to try to save the passengers' lives," Geller said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the crash.

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

Fatal accidents happen less often than with other types of aircraft, Bradley said.

"Hundreds of thousands of flights will go without any notice. That one that hits the news gets all the attention, but ballooning is a very, very safe form of aviation."

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region had been scheduled to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the venue.

Johnson, who went as a spectator to the festival with her husband, photographed the balloon after the accident. She said the crash near the park about 25 miles north of Richmond occurred in an instant.

"One minute the balloons were hovering in a field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky," she said.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery and heard people yelling.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," she told WWBT TV.

Join the discussion

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Patty May 11 2014 at 4:54 PM

When your time is up, it's up, but what a horrible way to go. I thought I wanted to take a hot air balloon ride years ago, now, not so sure anymore.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
towerhand34 May 11 2014 at 5:44 PM

god punished them for being lovers.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
5 replies
will2dmax May 11 2014 at 5:51 PM

Sorry this happens all the time,down in New Zealand 12 people all couples were killed in a Hot air ballon..a few years ago.My question is why were they anywhere near powerlines this guy had 20 years experiance, seriously hard to belive.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
2 replies
jejozi will2dmax May 11 2014 at 7:16 PM

I suggest you contact the FAA to aide them in their investigation, as it seems you know exactly what happened.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
kmcc895370 will2dmax May 11 2014 at 7:53 PM

probably texting. It causes enough car wrecks so . . . .

PS No, i don't really believe he was, but you do bring up a good point.

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Davidi May 11 2014 at 6:01 PM

Okay I'll say it too.....where's the erie facebook post ?

Flag Reply +5 rate up
2 replies
leeleepa Davidi May 11 2014 at 6:12 PM

The whole reason i read the article was for the erie facebook post.. terrible journalism

Flag Reply +4 rate up
1 reply
jejozi leeleepa May 11 2014 at 7:13 PM

Watch the video.

Flag +1 rate up
jejozi Davidi May 11 2014 at 7:12 PM

Did you watch the video??

Flag Reply 0 rate up
1 reply
Elizabeth jejozi May 11 2014 at 8:38 PM

@jejozi:of course they didn't! It's so much more fun to run their ridiculously illiterate mouths.

Flag 0 rate up
accseminoles May 11 2014 at 6:20 PM

where is the facebook post? There is no way in hell they had time to post anything on facebook if they did they had time to get the hell out of the ballon. This reporting sucks!!!!!!

Flag Reply +4 rate up
1 reply
dreamweaver5580 accseminoles May 11 2014 at 6:26 PM

What were they supposed to do, jump from a couple of thousand feet in the air. I agree the reporting sucks as always, but you sound just plain stupid.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
goodgrief61945 dreamweaver5580 May 11 2014 at 8:22 PM

Ballons don't travel thousands of feet high.

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bigcatdaddy May 11 2014 at 6:21 PM

Were they in a relationship? God works in strange ways sometimes.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
7 replies
lopjackie21 May 11 2014 at 6:28 PM

Wow...how SAD....!

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Steve May 11 2014 at 7:12 PM

Usually there is one or more ropes aboard. I wish they had had them to abandon the gondola.
Still the pilot should of been well aware of the power lines!!!

Flag Reply +4 rate up
Epignosisgrace May 11 2014 at 7:13 PM

My deep, heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those three people who lost their lives in the hot air explosion! How tragic---and more tragic still that the body of the third person can't be found! I am so sorry and I'm praying for those who loved them that God will sustain them through their shock, grief, and great sorrow!

Flag Reply +7 rate up
Rich May 11 2014 at 7:22 PM

Out for a fun event. Then, ending up being burned to death. And God is where?

Flag Reply +4 rate up
6 replies
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