DOSWELL, Va. — 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.
Snyder called Lewis “an amazing persona and a strong persona, an athlete engaged to be married.”
Lewis just completed her second year as director of basketball operations for the Richmond women’s basketball program, 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.
The university canceled two weekend baseball games and held a moment of silence at Saturday’s commencement without saying why.
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.
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. One person screamed, “Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die.”
Donnell Ferguson said he was cutting grass when he saw a couple balloons passing by. One was low, barely at tree-top level.
“At first I saw a cloud of black smoke and then I noticed the basket on fire,” he said. “Then it just took off real fast and disappeared.”
Robert Rinck, who was operating a frozen yogurt concession, said he watched the balloons lift off against a beautiful sunset. A few minutes later, someone said a balloon was on fire. He looked up and saw fire coming from the balloon.
“I just didn’t know why it was going up and not down,” Rinck said.
Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas and Steve Szkotak and Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond contributed to this report.