Family hopeful UR staffer will be found safe

Police on scene of hot-air balloon wreckage site
Natalie Lewis (Photo courtesy: Lewis family)
Natalie Lewis (Photo courtesy: Lewis family)

CAROLINE, VA (WWBT) - The parents of a University of Richmond women's basketball team member feared dead in a hot air balloon crash Friday says they are still hopeful their daughter will be found safe.

"The search continues for our beloved daughter and we remain hopeful and ask for your continued prayers," the parents of Natalie Lewis said in a statement.

Lewis was one of three people on board a hot air balloon which went down after catching fire Friday. Patricia & Evan Lewis reside in Buffalo, NY, but are now in Richmond. They are requesting privacy until the search and rescue team completes their work.

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State Police officials say two bodies have been recovered, but offered little hope of a third victim being found alive. They have transitioned the operation from rescue to recovery, with the FAA and NTSB helping in the investigation.

Virginia State Police and the NTSB have not yet named any of the three people on board the balloon, but a family member of Ginny Doyle told the Washington Post the associate head coach was also among those presumed dead.

Lewis, 24, served as director of basketball operations for the team.

The Henrico Citizen was first to report the connection to the Richmond women's basketball team. The university has not yet provided any statement, but did postpone this weekend's baseball games.

State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said crews found one body shortly before midnight and a second body around 11 a.m. Police continue to search for the basket, which detached from the balloon during the crash.

State Police believe the balloon went down when it struck a power line and caught fire around 7:56 p.m. Friday. The pilot began emergency safety maneuvers to get the fire under control, but witnesses told troopers the gondola and balloon eventually separated. Witnesses also reported hearing what sounded like two explosions.

Carrie Hager-Bradley was on her way home from the grocery store and saw the balloon on fire. She said she could hear cries from the people onboard.

"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,'" Hager-Bradley said.

Hager-Bradley went on to say her daughter witnessed what appeared to be one occupant of the balloon fall to the ground.

DID YOU WITNESS THE BALLOON IN DISTRESS? Virginia State Police want to speak with anyone who may have seen the balloon on fire near the Caroline Pines subdivision. Call (804) 994-5754 with any information.

The balloon was one of three traveling northeast to a designated landing zone. The other two balloons were able to land safely.

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