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Balloon crash looms over U. of Richmond graduation

Sunday, May 11, 2014
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LARRY O'DELL, Associated Press

DOSWELL, Va. — People in the University of Richmond community prepared for graduation Sunday with heavy hearts after the revelation that two athletic staff members were aboard a hot air balloon that drifted into a power line, burst into flames and crashed in Virginia.

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.

"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."

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.

A spokeswoman for Lewis' family, Julie Snyder, called Lewis "an amazing person and a strong person, an athlete engaged to be married."

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 in the news release.

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, 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.

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.

 
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