Two Richmond basketball officials feared dead in hot-air balloon crash Friday


This photo provided by Nancy Johnson shows what authorities say is a hot air balloon that was believed to have caught fire and crashed in Virginia. (Nancy Johnson/AP)

Ginny Doyle was formidable on the basketball court, but a little skittish about getting into a hot-air balloon.

“Getting ready to go up in a hot air balloon today,” Doyle, a former University of Richmond basketball player and the Spiders’ associate head coach, posted on Twitter and Instagram Friday afternoon. “Tried it at 6:30am but was too foggy. Will go up this evening . . . anxiety.”

About 6 p.m., Doyle was about to try again, posting a photo of the preparations, the colorful balloon spread out on the ground and the gondola nearby.

Joining her in the basket were two others, the pilot and Natalie Lewis, 24, the Spiders’ director of basketball operations. In the next balloon were Spiders head coach Michael Shafer and his two daughters, 7 and 9.

About two hours later, Shafer’s balloon landed safely. But moments after that, the balloon carrying Doyle and Lewis hit a power line and caught fire. The pilot attempted to control the fire and the balloon. At some point, two people either fell or leaped from the gondola. There was an explosion. More fire. And then the basket and balloon went off in separate directions.

On Saturday, rescuers recovered the bodies of two people who had been in the balloon; they declined to say which ones. But Lewis’s parents said their daughter was the one who remained missing. They held out hope that the more than 100 rescuers combing a wide, heavily wooded swath of Caroline County would find her alive.

“The search continues for our beloved daughter and we remain hopeful and ask for your continued prayers,” Patricia and Evan Lewis said in a written statement.

The accident was an emotional blow to the Spiders program, which Doyle joined fresh out of her Philadelphia high school. A talented player who stood a little less than 6 feet and could beat her older brother at hoops even as a child, Doyle, 44, earned a scholarship to play for the Spiders, her brother, Raymond Doyle said.

“She loved basketball. She loved that school,” he said.

Lewis is a native of Buffalo who swam for the Spiders and graduated in 2011.

Shafer organized the outing to the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival with his colleagues. The two basketball officials and pilot were in the balloon about 8 p.m. Friday that witnesses said crashed amid cries for help.

Virginia State Police said they have not identified the passengers or the pilot. The first body was found in a heavily wooded area shortly before midnight Friday, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. The second was recovered about 11 a.m. Saturday, about 1,500 yards away. The balloon and gondola carrying the pilot and two passengers have not been found and may have burned, she said.


(The Washington Post)

Geller said the balloon was one of 13 that took flight Friday as part of an event in advance of the balloon festival scheduled for Saturday and now canceled. After hitting the power line, the pilot attempted to vent the balloon and take other measures to bring it down, a pilot on the ground told investigators.

The pilot had only minutes, if not seconds, to react, Geller said.

“Unfortunately, it was a very rapid event,” Geller said. “And then you have the explosion.”

Despite Doyle’s reference on Twitter to fog forcing them to cancel an earlier flight, Geller said, the weather was fine by Friday evening and was not thought to have been a factor in the crash.

Accidents involving hot-air balloons are rare in the United States, where pilots are required to have a Federal Aviation Administration certificate and a balloon rating in order to fly. The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 772 hot-air balloon crashes and incidents in the United States since 1964. Of those, fewer than 70 were fatal.

The last fatal crash in the Washington region was June 6, 1987, when a balloon hit a power line and exploded near Gaithersburg, killing a 16-year-old and seriously injuring her father.

In Doswell, a mostly rural community about 25 miles north of Richmond that is best known for the Kings Dominion amusement park, about 100 rescuers searched through the night Friday and all day Saturday. Because of the time that elapsed since the crash, the search was shifted Saturday from a rescue operation to a mission to recover remains, Geller said. The group was planning to suspend the search at nightfall and resume at dawn.

According to the Associated Press, witnesses told police that two of the occupants either fell or jumped from the burning balloon after it struck the power line.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery store and heard people yelling, according to TV station WWBT.

“They were just screaming for anybody to help them,” she said.

“ ‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die,’ ” Hager-Bradley said she heard one person screaming.

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic were to participate in the weekend festival Saturday, but a special kickoff was held Friday for about 740 people.

“It’s just a shocking situation for everyone,” Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the venue, told AP.

Bystander Nancy Johnson said the crash occurred in an instant.

“One minute the balloons were hovering in [the] field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky,” she wrote in an e-mail to the AP. “The crowd went silent in shock. Very sad night.”

Donnell Ferguson said he was cutting grass when he saw a couple of balloonsgo by. One was low, barely at tree-top level.

“At first I saw a cloud of black smoke and then I noticed the basket on fire,” he said Saturday. “Then it just took off real fast and disappeared.”

Some hot-air balloons landed safely in Debra Ferguson’s yard, the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg reported.

Ferguson said one of the men in the balloons pointed up at another still in the air and said he thought it might be in trouble.

“As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there,” she told the newspaper. “All I heard was, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God,’ and all you saw was the top of the balloon still flying, but all of the basket was gone. All of the flames just disappeared. . . . It was like a match — poof — and then it was gone.”

Those who knew the University of Richmond basketball staff members spoke of their close relationships, which extended far beyond the basketball court.

“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,” said unversity President Edward L. Ayers.

“The team spends so much time together,” said Donna Chambers, 64, of White Plains, N.Y., whose daughter Cori Chambers is an assistant coach.

Donna Chambers said she broke down in tears Saturday when she heard that Doyle and Lewis were in the accident.

Chambers said her daughter and Lewis were particularly close friends, taking cooking classes together at the university and sharing a room when they traveled for games. She said her daughter is on a cruise and she has been unable to reach her to tell her the news.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “My girl would have been with them if she was here.”

Jennifer Jenkins and Rachel Sadon contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Amy Brittain is a reporter for The Post's investigative team.
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