UPDATED 13:32, Tuesday, May 13
A hot air balloon carrying three people crashed near Meadow Event Park Friday evening.
Natalie M. Lewis, 24, of Richmond; Virginia “Ginny” T. Doyle, 44, of Glen Allen; and Daniel T. Kirk, 65, of Hartley, Delaware, died in the accident, the medical examiner’s office confirmed Monday evening.
Lewis was the director of basketball operations for the University of Richmond, and Doyle was associate head women’s basketball coach at the university. Kirk was piloting the balloon, which was part of the inaugural Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival originally scheduled for last weekend at Meadow Event Park.
According to the Virginia State Police, the balloon came into contact with a live utility line shortly before 8 p.m. and immediately caught fire.
Witness accounts to the VSP say the pilot attempted to regain control of the balloon and manage the fire. At one point, the balloon’s two passengers leapt from the basket. Witnesses then recall hearing an explosion, and the fire continued to spread.
The fire caused the balloon to rise rapidly and separate from the basket.
Virginia State Police, Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, Caroline County Fire and Rescue, and Henrico County Police began searching the immediate area for the three occupants and the wreckage of the balloon and basket Friday night.
Search efforts involving more than 100 personnel continued throughout the weekend. Additional resources were brought in from Civil Air Patrol and search and rescue canine teams from around the state to comb the rural, heavily-wooded terrain in the vicinity of Ruther Glen Road.
The Federal Aviation Administration also responded to the scene Friday evening, and the National Transportation Safety Board was notified. The FAA, NTSB, and State Police are each conducting their own investigation of the accident.
The first body was found shortly before midnight Friday near the intended landing site, and search crews discovered a second body at approximately 11 a.m. on Saturday near the Caroline Pines subdivision in Ruther Glen. About 24 hours later, they found the third body approximately 100 yards north of where they had located the second occupant.
The bodies were transported to the medical examiner’s office in Richmond for positive identification.
The State Police and NTSB investigators have now turned their attention toward locating the balloon wreckage and collecting evidence.
Anyone with photos or video of the balloon crash is asked to submit them by email to the NTSB at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corinne Geller, public relations director for the VSP, said in a press conference Saturday afternoon that crews “will continue to keep searching until the wreckage can be found. We have still not located the basket or the balloon.”
However, some debris and items that were believed to be on the hot air balloon have been discovered.
“That is encouraging to search crews,” Geller said.
Police do not believe weather was a significant factor in the accident. The sky was overcast, but there was no inclement weather reported.
Geller said the public has “been a tremendous help” in the investigation.
“We’ve had probably anywhere between 30 and 40 calls—people who witnessed it here at the festival Friday, neighbors, people driving in the vicinity, and it’s been a tremendous help. We’ve been following up with those folks, and we truly appreciate you taking the time to call and leave your name and contact information,” she said.
“We’re trying to put together perspectives of where the gondola may have landed and where the balloon may have landed. It’s a very rural area because of the terrain—heavy woods and also the darkness is working against us right now in trying to locate these, but we will continue searching throughout the night,” Geller had said.
Geller said the search involved a “perspective issue.”
“For people on the ground, there are actually mechanisms in place that can help us if they can tell us where they were standing and what they saw, can actually give us that distance and that perspective of where they may actually have come to the ground.”
She added, “Everyone’s at different perspectives, and witness accounts are—you’re not expecting to see something like that.”
The hot air balloon was one of 13 that took off from Meadow Event Park Friday evening and were on their way to a pilot-chosen landing site in a field off Ruther Glen Road. The others landed safely.
The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was to have taken place Saturday and Sunday, was cancelled following the accident.
Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa commended the work of the agencies involved in the search.
“I am extremely proud of our personnel for carrying out their assigned tasks, for those who put in countless hours, and to those who represented this office and Caroline County in such a professional manner,” Lippa said in a written statement.
“Since I referee Women’s Division 1 Basketball, I knew both Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis. My heart goes out to their family along with the University of Richmond and the Atlantic 10 families,” Lippa said.
In a statement from the University of Richmond, the university’s president, Edward L. Ayers, said, “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. Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many.”
“Words cannot begin to express our sorrow,” said Keith Gill, UR director of athletics. “We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones.”
The Doyle family issued a statement: “We are deeply sadden by the tragic event and the loss of Ginny. Words cannot express how we feel or our remorse. Ginny was a daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, niece, athlete, teammate, coach, teacher, colleague, friend and story-teller. She was a formidable player that will always be remembered for her NCAA free-throw shooting record, which led to national recognition and her nickname ‘Deadeye Doyle.’
“She was an accomplished coach, dedicated to women’s basketball and her life with the University of Richmond Spiders. She touched the lives of many and lived life to the fullest. She will be greatly missed and holds a special place in all our hearts.
“Our condolences, thoughts and prayers to the Lewis family and her fiancé on the loss of Natalie, Ginny’s colleague and best friend.”
According to employee profiles on the UR website, Doyle was a Philadelphia native who graduated from Richmond in 1992 and served on the Spiders’ staff for 16 years.
Under her guidance, the Spiders experienced nine winning seasons, an at-large berth to the 2005 NCAA Tournament, five consecutive postseason appearances, and a first-ever appearance in the Atlantic 10 Championship final in 2009.
As a student basketball player at UR, Doyle achieved and still holds the title of career leader in free throw percentage, and she set the NCAA Division I record for consecutive free throws made with 66—a record that stood for 18 years.
Lewis was a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated UR in 2011. She joined the Spiders’ staff in 2012.
As an undergraduate at Richmond, Lewis was a championship swimmer and four-year varsity letter winner who served twice as team captain. She was on three Atlantic 10 swimming championship teams. She also participated in student government as a cabinet member, and she graduated as a Spider Scholar Athlete.