Crews find body of third victim in hot-air balloon accident

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DOSWELL, Va. (WTVR) - A massive search has ended after state police recovered the body of the third victim in a fiery hot-air balloon accident at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival at Meadow Event Park Friday night.

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here for viewer submitted photos of the balloon's fiery flight

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here for viewer submitted photos of the balloon's fiery flight

Hundreds of searchers from Virginia State Police, Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, Caroline County Fire and Rescue, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Civil Air Patrol and multiple search-and-rescue teams fought through thick woods and dense vegetation searching for the victims near the Caroline Pines subdivision since late Friday.

Virginia State Police said the remains of the third victim were discovered around 11 a.m. Sunday around 100 yards north of where the second body was found the day before.

As a result, the large-scale search effort was called off and state police and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators are now concentrating on locating evidence and balloon wreckage.

The task of uncovering what actually causes the balloon to collide with an electrical wire is up to federal investigators.

The NTSB said their investigation into the fiery crash examines possible equipment factors, operator decisions and weather conditions.

"If we do find any safety issues with this, we will make a recommendation in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening in the future," NTSB investigator Hedi Moats said.

A preliminary report by the agency is due within 10 days.

On the ground, crews continue to look for any pieces of the balloon that could provide clues.

Neighbors like Elizabeth Mitchell, who saw the Caroline Pines subdivision transformed into a command center, are still coming to terms with the tragedy that happened so close to where they live.

"Oh, just tears streaming down my face. It's very sad," Mitchell said. "I just feel a somberness... It's amazing how life goes on, and we all move with it."

University of Richmond women's basketball staffers on balloon

Two victims in Friday night’s hot air balloon fire and crash were members of the University of Richmond women’s basketball staff, the University of Richmond confirmed Saturday night.

Natlie Mattimore Lewis (SOURCE: Lewis family)

Natlie Mattimore Lewis (SOURCE: Lewis family)

Associate head women’s basketball coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were on the balloon that crashed, the university said.

Official identification is pending from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Earlier Saturday, the University of Richmond announced it had postponed this weekend's home baseball games vs. St. Bonaventure.

The parents of Natalie Lewis, the operations director for the women's basketball team, confirmed via a spokesperson Saturday evening that she was a passenger on the balloon.

"The search continues for our beloved daughter and we remain hopeful and ask for your continued prayers," Patricia and Evan Lewis, who are in Richmond, said in a statment.

The pilot was with the women in the balloon at the time of the incident, according to witnesses.

Mark Nelson, a friend of pilot, confirmed that Dan Kirk was an accomplished balloon pilot and ambassador to the sport.

Dan Kirk

Dan Kirk (SOURCE: Mark Nelson)

"The Balloon community shares the loss of our good friend Dan Kirk "Capt Kirk" that was killed during contact with electrical wires...," Nelson of Virginia Balloons said in a statement. "Dan Kirk will be greatly missed by everyone in Ballooning across America. Our hearts go out to Dans family & the families of passengers involved in the Balloon accident."

Massive search for victims in fiery balloon accident 

The remains of two of the three people who were in the balloon when it caught fire were discovered Saturday. Virginia State Police said that a massive search continues for the third victim following a deadly hot-air balloon accident at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival Friday night.


Caroline Pines subdivision (PHOTO: Sandra Jones)

The third victim's remains were found around 11 a.m. Sunday morning 100 yards north of where a second victim's remains were discovered around the same time the day before in a wooded area behind the Caroline Pines subdivision, according to Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

The remains of another victim who died in the hot-air balloon fire were also recovered early Saturday morning in a heavily wooded area near Doswell.

The victims' remains were taken to the Medical Examainer's Office in Richmond for positive identification.

Hot air balloon fire (PHOTO: Carrie Hager Bradley)

Hot air balloon fire (PHOTO: Carrie Hager Bradley)

Three people who were inside the basket of the hot air balloon when it hit a live power line while attempting to land about 8 p.m. Friday.

Saturday morning state police said that due to the amount of time that has passed since the fire and the fact no one has been in contact with the other people in the balloon late Friday night, police reclassified their efforts from a rescue to a recovery mission.

When the balloon hit the power line, the gondola and balloon separated, according to witnesses who also heard two explosions.

Sandra Jones reported that police said the pilot made every effort to bring the balloon down before it struck power lines in an attempt to save lives.

PHOTO: Nancy J.

PHOTO: Nancy J.

State police said that over 100 state troopers and police, a Civil Air Patrol and with K-9 teams, conducted meticulous grid searches due to the heavily wooded terrain and underbrush to find the victims who were riding in the hot air balloon's gondola.

State police credited the public's tips for helping organizers “triangulate” search efforts.

Balloon wreckage may never be found

Geller said the balloon had been sighted as far as the King George County line and even AP Hill.

“There is the possibility due to the intensity of the fire that there may be not much left of the parachute itself,” Geller said. “And the same goes of the basket. It’s like a wicker basket.”

As a result, state police said the search was the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack.

“So finding the wreckage… is proving to be a challenge in itself, because we’re not sure how much is left of it at this point,” Geller said.

Two people were seen either jumping or falling out of the basket shortly after the fire, witnesses said.

State police said that it may never be know whether the victims jumped or fell out of the balloon, which was part of this weekend's Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival at Meadow Event Park.

Carrie Bradley was with her family when they saw the balloon and pulled over to snap a photo. Then they saw people jumping from what Bradley said was hundreds of feet up in the air. Bradley said that her daughter was traumatized afterward. [WATCH: Woman says balloon fire victims screamed 'Jesus, help us. We’re going to die' before jumping] 

The event was cancelled in the wake of Friday's accident.

Virginia State Police, the NTSB and FAA are all investigating the accident since hot-air are a commercial aircraft.

Police asked anyone who saw the balloon — or may have information that could help them locate the crash site — to call 804-994-5754.


  • Ron Melancon

    Will this paper tell the truth? Just like a Homeowner who decides to build a HOMEMADE trailer.


    No! It is only the beginning. It turns out that hot air balloon operators have a free hand to operate with no liability insurance. Here is the scary part about hot air balloons:

    The FAA considers hot air balloons casual aircraft = NO insurance needed if operating within 25 miles of an airport. That’s right! Better have your own health and life insurance! You and I have to have liability insurance to take our cars out of the garage. Hot air balloons, no legal requirement!

    • jim

      You really need to find something you enjoy doing instead of pointing out what you dislike about other people and their hobbies.

      • E Marshall Buckles

        Sheeze, Jim! Ron is doing us all a favor by pointing this out! The Virginia General Assembly needs to require that people operating these balloons have liability insurance. If somebody lands their balloon flambe on top of your house and burns it down, they need to have the resources in place to pay for that so that you don’t have to take them to court and likely get nothing. It’s not a matter of disliking someone or their hobby, it is a matter of requiring them to do it in a legally and financially responsible manner so that if some accident happens, those who are the victims don’t have their lives totally ruined, if they survive, or their survivors don’t have their lives totally ruined in the aftermath.

    • athynz

      IIRC the balloon company makes people sign waivers prior to allowing them on the balloon. That should be a red flag however people are going into the balloon aware of the risks.

      And stop using the whole “homemade trailer” issue as some sort of analogy you can wave around to criticize other people’s hobbies. It’s getting old.

  • Ron Melancon

    The Reason why I am connected to this story is because these cheap hot air ballon owners TOW TRAILERS TO CARRY THEIR BALLOON equipment in TRAILERS that over 80 percent have at least one safety violation, are not inspected and the Virginia State Police do not enforce the LAW….all trailers of these that carry the equipment are under state law to have an inspection every year and the state police don’t care and they don’t enforce….trailer safety….then why would they do anything on Ballon Safety.

    • athynz

      So you are saying a trailer that allegedly has safety violations is the reason behind this? Come on dude that’s a heck of a stretch. Prove the trailers they were using were in violation.

  • Sarah

    Not sure where you go your info bu they do have to have insurance if they are charging riders for their service. Like any business the pilot of the balloon is liable for their passengers.

    What are the Licence and Insurance requirements?
    Licensing and regulations vary from country to country. Please check this out with your local aviation authority. Like with any business, insurance is important. Due to the very special nature of the service to passengers that you are offering, special aviation insurance is required. This is normally greater that with private flying and one should be sure that one always has adequate cover. We have already said how safe ballooning can be however insurance is for that one time when things do not go as planned. You as the operator are personally liable as in any business so do not cut corners on insurance. By insuring correctly you can then operate and enjoy your business with complete peace of mind.

  • Elizabeth

    Stuff happens. It is ridiculous to imagine that the people in the balloon had to the aware of the risk involved.

    • Sarah

      They are and have to sign papers that they are aware of the risk involved. The pilot that was in charge of my husbands flight when he went stood by him and made sure he read those papers before signing them. As beautiful and peaceful as they are unfortunately things do happen at times. Thoughts and prayers for all involved.

    • Shelley

      Elizabeth…your statement sounds so callous. Understanding the risks and making an informed decision does not negate hitting power lies, catching fire and plummeting to your death. To simply state that they signed a waiver and stuff happens is incredibly disrespectful to all involved. Just as the media is for running a story on the screams of these women involved is unconscionable. I hope the families NEVER see this display of indifference that you have submitted.

  • Steve smith

    Actually all balloonist must have a license to carry passengers. Also the regulation is that if your flying an event such as the Mid Atlantic Balloon Fest, you must carry $1 million in liability. So Ron, your facts are wrong. Also any balloonist carrying passengers paying or pleasure would be stupid not to have insurance, just for a freak accident like this. Not saying that all pilots have the proper situational awareness, but it would be illegal for this pilot to be flying this event or any event without insurance.

    Not to mention the waiver ALL passengers sign saying they are about to take a flight with some risk.

  • angel2

    Thanks for clearing that up, Steve Smith…I was almost confused by the mis-information. The bottom of the article does say hot air balloons are considered commercial aircraft: ergo, it would make sense that the pilot is licensed and carries insurance.
    My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims’ families and friends.

  • SicSemper

    Tragic. Always nice though to see the media drag a tragic story out, I believe I’ve seen twice as many videos and pictures of the balloon on fire or crashing than pictures of the victims in happier times while trying to learn more about this story. I’m sure that’s real helpful and comforting to the families. But it seems to be the nature of the beast known as “news”. I’m sure all the local news outlets were all abuzz hoping for a national 30 second spot and a “big break” in their careers. A ballon crashed, no need for interviews with people who heard them scream for God and Jesus or saw them jump. The story and a picture or two will suffice thank you. Concentrate on their lives, the investigation. We’ve all seen the pictures.

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