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Balloon crash in Virginia: Three perish after gondola burns across the sky

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Authorities and volunteers concluded their search Sunday for the missing third person lost in the woodlands around Doswell, Virginia, where the burning gondola of a hot air balloon crashed Friday. All three individuals aboard perished in the accident, which ensued after the balloon flew into a set of live power lines. Two of the bodies were recovered Saturday.

The Associated Press reported (via Yahoo News) May 11 that witnesses stared in silent shock Friday after a number of balloons that had lifted off at the Virginia State Fair Grounds as part of preliminary ceremonies for the weekend's balloon festival -- the Mid-Atlantic Ballon Festival -- and were coming in for landings. One of the gondola's of a descending balloon touched some power lines and caught fire. The efforts of pilot Daniel Kirk to gain control of his balloon and get his passengers, two members of the University of Richmond's athletic staff, to safety went to no avail as the gondola was soon engulfed in flames. The balloon crashed in a heavily wooded area about 25 miles north of Richmond.

The first two bodies recovered were found about 1,500 yards apart. It is as yet unclear if the victims jumped from the flaming gondola to escape the fire or if they fell out as their conveyance became less stable. The third body was recovered about 100 yards from the location of the second recovered victim.

"Words cannot begin to express our sorrow," Keith Gill, Richmond'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."

The horrific accident has cast a pall over what would have normally been a joyous and festive weekend as students and families celebrated the university's undergraduate commencement exercises for its 2014 class, scheduled for Sunday.

A moment of silence was conducted at the law school's separate ceremony on Saturday. The University of Richmond also canceled two ball games scheduled for the weekend.

The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival was also canceled.

Police said that two balloons had landed when a third hit some power lines, according to state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. Watchers on the ground recounted that the pilot, she said, attempted to get control of the balloon and snuff out the fire. The two passengers either jumped or fell from the gondola. An explosion occurred and the fire quickly spread.

One spectator, Nancy Johnson, said, "It was complete silence. There were people praying. It was horrible."

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," Carrie Hager-Bradley told WWBT-TV, recalling what she saw as she returned home from the grocery store. She also heard someone screaming: "'Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die."

A pilot who witnessed the tragedy was interviewed by police. He maintained the Kirk, the burning balloon's pilot, did everything he could to minimize the danger to his passengers. He noted that the pilot had tried to open vents to release extra-hot air. This was an attempt to keep the balloon, which was ascending, from rising faster.

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

Daniel Kirk had more than 30 years of piloting experience, according to his father, Donald. He told USA Today that his son had served in the military for 37 years as well.

Members from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration were called in to investigate the accident.

The two passengers on board the balloon were identified as Richmond Spiders women's basketball team associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis. Doyle, a 1992 University of Richmond graduate, was a basketball staff member for 16 years. Lewis was director of basketball relations for the past two years and also a Spiders alum, having been a two-time captain of the university's swim team.

Ballooning accidents are relatively rare. Past president of the Balloon Federation of America Troy Bradley told the Associated Press that most of the serious accidents occur when a balloon crashes into power lines. Unfortunately, such occurrences usually are the result of pilot error, he said.

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