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Three victims identified in Va. hot air balloon crash

The University of Richmond prepared for commencement ceremonies against a backdrop of tragedy Sunday after the university confirmed that two member's of the women's basketball coaching staff were on a hot air balloon with the pilot when it crashed in Virginia late Friday. 

Undergraduate commencement was scheduled for the afternoon. Meanwhile, investigators were planning to resume their efforts to scour the woods and fields surrounding the site of Friday's balloon crash for the remains of the third person aboard the balloon. Two bodies have already been found.

University administrators said in a news release that associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were two of the three people aboard the balloon that crashed Friday night. Investigators haven't said which bodies were found.

Donald Kirk said Sunday that his son, Daniel T. Kirk, was at the controls of the balloon.

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

Police describe their continued search efforts as an operation to recover remains. 

The police said the search for the third body is being conducted in area that is “extremely wooded and rural.” More than 100 searchers and K-9 units were called in to scour the woods and fields for the third victim and any remnants of the balloon or its basket, state police said. 

"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. 

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

The balloon was registered to Daniel Kirk at an address in the Dover, Delaware, area. His company's website said that Kirk had more than 20 years' experience as a hot air balloon pilot.

The website says Kirk had a commercial balloon pilot license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration and had flown in ballooning events throughout the country.

Lewis was in her third year as director of basketball operations for the Richmond women's basketball program, according to a profile on the university's website. She was a four-year letter winner and two-time captain of the Spiders' swim team. The Buffalo, New York native attended Nardin Academy high school. 

Doyle, also a former Richmond basketball star, served on the Spiders' staff for 16 years, according to the school. 

"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 of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers said in a statement. 

Authorities said the pilot of the balloon was doing everything he could to save his life and the lives of his two passengers on Friday night in the moments before the balloon exploded.

"`Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die"'

- witness who heard screams

Police said another pilot who was 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. 

Police received eyewitness reports that two occupants either fell or jumped from the burning balloon after it struck the power line.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery store and heard people yelling, according to WWBT-TV.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," the station quoted her as saying. "`Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die,"' Hager-Bradley said she heard one person screaming.

The crash occurred near the Meadow Event Park in rural Caroline County, where the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival was being held. The area is about 15 miles north of Richmond.

The festival was scheduled to begin officially on Saturday, but was holding a special kickoff event Friday for a limited number of people. Organizers canceled the rest of the festival.

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

The balloon was among 13 that lifted off Friday, and was approaching a landing site nearby. Two balloons landed safely before the third hit the live power line, according to police. 

Some hot air balloons landed safely in Debra Ferguson's yard, The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg reported.

She said one of the men in the balloons pointed up at another still in the air and said he thought it might be in trouble.

"As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there," Ferguson told the newspaper. "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 like a match -- poof -- and then it was gone."

Amber Battle, who will be a senior next season, said from her home in Apex, N.C., 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.

Caroline County resident Paula Dustin said she and her family and a friend were watching the balloons inflate and take off when they saw one in the distance that appeared to be in distress.

"We saw a glow, and you could tell the bottom of the balloon was in flames," Dustin was quoted by the newspaper as saying. 

On the ground, "It was complete silence," eyewitness Nancy Johnson said. "There were people praying. It was horrible." 

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.

An air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report would be released on the crash in 10 days. Heidi Moats said investigators were seeking records on the balloon and the pilot.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
 

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