2 bodies found, 1 missing after hot air balloon burns, crashes in Virginia

(CNN) — More than 100 state troopers and deputies searched for the third occupant of a hot air balloon that crashed in flames at a Virginia balloon festival, killing the other two people on board, state police said Saturday.

Witnesses captured photographs of the balloon after it drifted into power lines, burst into flames Friday night and crashed into the countryside about 25 miles north of Richmond. Some reported seeing two people either jump or fall from the basket at a dizzying height.

The bodies were found about 1,500 yards apart in a heavily wooded area, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Saturday afternoon.

Two members of the University of Richmond women’s basketball program were among those aboard.

Ginny Doyle, associate head basketball coach, and Natalie Lewis, director of basketball operations, were on the balloon, the university said in a statement.

It said the medical examiner’s office has not provided official identification.

“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,” President Edward L. Ayers said. “Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many.”

The search was scaled back at sundown Saturday because of the difficulty of navigating the terrain in the dark. A full-scale effort will resume at daybreak Sunday, police said.

The basket and the balloon separated at some point; neither had been found.

Earlier Saturday, Geller told reporters the effort had transitioned from rescue to recovery.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

“We will investigate the man, machine and the environment,” NTSB air safety investigator Heidi Moats said.

Weather conditions are one of the elements investigators are looking at, Moats said, though there was no inclement weather at the time and, so far, officials don’t believe those conditions played a role in the crash, Geller said.

Thirteen hot air balloons had been soaring on the eve of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival in Doswell, and three were landing close to each other. Two landed safely, Geller said, but as the third balloon descended, it hit a power line, sparking a fire that spread quickly.

The pilot began doing his safety maneuvers and “took every step to manage the situation,” the spokeswoman said. But then there was an explosion and the basket and balloon separated.

Those aboard the balloon pleaded for their lives, witness Carrie Hager-Bradley told CNN affiliate WWBT.

“They were just screaming for anybody to help them. ‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help, I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die,'” she said.

Her daughter told her she saw someone falling out of the basket. Then Hager-Bradley also saw someone plummeting to the ground.

Organizers canceled the festival after the accident.

CNN’s Joe Sutton, Mandy Lawrence and Melissa Gray contributed to this report.

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