Balloon crash looms over U. of Richmond graduation; third body found
DOSWELL, Va. (AP) - 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, authorities have found the remains of the third occupant of the hot air balloon, police said Sunday. Now investigators are trying to determine what made the balloon drift into power lines, catch fire and crash, killing the pilot and two passengers.
Donald Kirk told CNN on Sunday that his son, Daniel Kirk, was on the balloon when it crashed. The 66-year-old Army veteran had been piloting balloons for more than 30 years, lived for flying and never flew if the weather conditions weren't right, his father said.
"He was a very good pilot," Donald Kirk said. "Something happened, I just don't know what happened."
University of Richmond 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.
"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.
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.