Two dead, one missing after hot air balloon catches fire

Posted at 05/11/2014 8:32 PM
A hot air balloon on fire is pictured north of Richmond, Virginia, May 9, 2014, in this handout photo courtesy of Lynn Shultz. Photo by Lynn Shultz, handout via Reuters

Two people were killed and another was missing after a hot air balloon hit a power line and caught fire over Virginia during a festival, as horrified witnesses watched from below, police said on Saturday.

Authorities conducted a search in the air and with more than 100 people on the ground for the third person who was in the balloon's basket at the time of the Friday evening accident about 30 miles (50 km) north of Richmond.

"We still have not located the basket or the balloon. We do continue to keep finding debris and various items that would have been on the hot air balloon," Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller told a televised news conference.

Witnesses posted photos online showing a balloon in mid-air with its basket engulfed in flames and a trail of smoke spilling into the sky.

There appeared to have been an explosion as the balloon hit the line and then separated from the basket carrying the passengers. Witnesses reported hearing screams from those on board the balloon.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," local resident Carrie Hager-Bradley told a local NBC affiliate.

Geller said there were eyewitness reports that two people were seen tumbling from the basket after the balloon caught fire, but said it was unclear if they fell or jumped.

Authorities have not identified the three victims.

Two other balloons had landed safely at a designated landing site before the accident with the third balloon, Geller said.

The Washington Post reported two women's basketball officials at the University of Richmond were among the three people killed in the incident.

They were associate head coach Ginny Doyle, 44, and Natalie Lewis, the director of basketball operations, the newspaper reported, citing a sister of Doyle and a person who had family members at the balloon festival.

A representative from the University of Richmond did not return calls.

More than 20 hot air balloon teams from across the United States were to take part at The Meadow Event Park in Caroline County. The Saturday and Sunday events were canceled.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the accident.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson, Doina Chiacu and Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Marguerita Choy)