2 dead, 1 still missing after hot air balloon crash

Police on scene of hot-air balloon wreckage site
Published: May. 10, 2014 at 5:16 PM EDT
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Source: Carrie Hager-Bradley
Source: Carrie Hager-Bradley
Photo By: Jim Cox
Photo By: Jim Cox
Photo by: Jim Cox
Photo by: Jim Cox

CAROLINE, VA (WWBT) - Virginia State Police have found the remains of two people and are still searching for a third person following a hot-air balloon fire near Meadow Event Park in Caroline County on Friday.

In a press conference Saturday morning, State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said they found one body shortly before midnight that they sent to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond for identification. A second press conference shortly after noon revealed that a second body had been found at around 11 a.m.

Police are not releasing the names of the three people believed to be in the hot-air balloon at the time of the crash.

Police will continue searching for the basket, which was detached from the balloon during the crash, and the other person involved. They say they have transitioned the operation from rescue to recovery. Virginia State Police is working with the FAA and NTSB in the investigation.

The Henrico Citizen is reporting that two U. of Richmond women's basketball staff members were aboard the hot air balloon. School officials are not confirming this, but the Richmond Spiders announced that they are postponing this weekend's baseball games.

In a press conference Friday night, Geller said a pilot and two passengers were believed to be in the gondola when it struck a power line and caught fire at approximately 7:56 p.m. Friday. The pilot began emergency safety maneuvers to get the fire under control, but witnesses told Virginia State Police 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 told NBC12's Curt Autry 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 told NBC12.

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.

Earlier in the evening, the search was limited to the ground due to weather conditions, however air support from both Virginia State Police and Henrico County Police were later brought in.

The organizers of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival released the following statement:

"The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9. Virginia State Police and local officials and law enforcement are on-site and trained for any emergency. Emergency officials responded to the incident.

According to the VSP, a balloon caught fire and crashed northeast of the Meadow Event Park. No wreckage has been found yet, and there are no confirmed injuries or fatalities. However, the pilot and at least two passengers are missing. 

A ground search is currently under way involving VSP, the Federal Aviation Administration as well as Caroline and Henrico County law enforcement and EMS personnel. State Police report that bad weather elsewhere in the Richmond vicinity has grounded air search for the time being.

A balloon festival spokesman said the remainder of the event has been canceled. Details regarding advance ticket purchases for Saturday's and Sunday's events will be announced soon."

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