Third body recovered in hot-air balloon crash

As University of Richmond students participated in graduation ceremonies Sunday, state and local police finished a massive search for the third victim of a fiery balloon crash that has devastated the school’s women’s basketball team.

The badly burned remains of a woman’s body were found Sunday morning about 100 yards away from where one of the other bodies was found the day before, Virginia State Police said.

None of the victims in the Friday crash near Doswell, Va., have been identified pending a medical examiner’s report, officials said.

But university officials have confirmed that both Ginny Doyle, 44, associate head women’s basketball coach, and Natalie Lewis, 24, the team’s director of basketball operations, were inside the balloon’s gondola when the craft went down.

An official identified the balloon’s pilot as Daniel T. Kirk, 65.

“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 university President Edward L. Ayers in a statement posted on the school’s Web site. “Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many.”

Said athletic director Keith Gill: “We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones.”

A spokesman with the National Transportation Safety Board said the results of a preliminary investigation are expected to be released next week.

The balloon, one of 13 launched Friday evening as part of an event in advance of a Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, evidently struck a power line and caught fire, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said.

The pilot tried to vent the balloon and take other steps to land before the gondola and balloon separated in flames amid cries for help, witnesses told investigators.

Kirk, of Hartly, Del., had been a commercial pilot since the 1980s and owned and operated a Delaware-based balloon-ride company called Starship Adventures, according to the company’s Web site. On the site, “Capt. Kirk” says that he has more than 20 years of experience as a hot-air balloon pilot and has a commercial balloon pilot’s license.

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

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

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

Spiders head coach Michael Shafer organized the outing to the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival with his colleagues. Shafer and his daughters, ages 7 and 9, were in a separate balloon and landed safely.

The balloon festival was canceled after the crash.

Instead, more than 100 local and state rescue workers searched for the bodies in a portion of Caroline County that was three miles long and a quarter-mile wide, said state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

The first body was found in a heavily wooded area shortly before midnight Friday, 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 riders have not been found and may have burned, she said.

Crashes 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 to fly. The NTSB 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.

Knudson, the NTSB spokesman, said investigators will be examining a variety of possible causes for Friday’s crash, including whether there were any problems with the balloon before the launch.

Antonio covers government, politics and other regional issues in Fairfax County. He worked in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before joining the Post in September of 2013.
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