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Hot-air balloon fire kills two

1:30 p.m. update May 10:

A second body was recovered Saturday from the crash of a hot air balloon carrying three that drifted into a power line and burst into flames in front of hundreds of horrified spectators.

More than 100 searchers were called in to scour the woods and fields of the central Virginia site of the crash for the third victim and any remnants of the balloon or its basket, state police said.

None of the victims has been identified.

Witnesses said they heard the anguished pleas of the passengers Friday night as the balloon touched the power line and erupted into flames.

On the ground, "It was complete silence," eyewitness Nancy Johnson said. "There were people praying. It was horrible."

The balloon crashed Friday night ahead of an inaugural balloon festival. It was among 13 balloons that took off from Meadow Event Park, home to the State Fair of Virginia, and was approaching a landing site nearby. Two of the balloons landed safely before the third hit the live power line.

The pilot attempted to retain control of the balloon and snuff the fire and two passengers either jumped or fell from the gondola, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

"Then witnesses recall hearing an explosion and the fire continued to spread," Geller said. The gondola and the balloon then separated.

Federal investigators were at the scene in rural Carolina County.

Troy Bradley, past president of the Balloon Federation of America, said most serious accidents on balloons — including fires, electrocution or baskets becoming severed — happen after hitting power lines. Most of the time it's due to pilot error, he said.

Fatal accidents happen less often than with other types of aircraft, Bradley said.

"Hundreds of thousands of flights will go without any notice. That one that hits the news gets all the attention, but ballooning is a very, very safe form of aviation."

The crash occurred on the eve of the official start of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was cancelled followed the crash. The area is about 25 miles north of Richmond.

Johnson said the crash occurred in an instant.

"One minute the balloons were hovering in a field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky," she said.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery and heard people yelling.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," she told WWBT TV. One person screamed, "Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die."

Donnell Ferguson said he was cutting grass when he saw a couple balloons passing 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. "Then it just took off real fast and disappeared."

The crash occurred during a special festival kickoff event Friday for about 740 people.

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region were to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the venue.

"It's just a shocking situation for everyone," Hicks said.

Robert Rinck, who was operating a frozen yogurt concession, said he watched the balloons lift off against a beautiful sunset. A few minutes later, someone said a balloon was on fire. He looked up and saw fire coming from the balloon.

"I just didn't know why it was going up and not down," Rinck said.

Johnson, who went to the festival with her husband, photographed the balloon as it rose.

"I turned around and just automatically started taking pictures," she said. "It just kept going up, up, up in the air."

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


6:30 a.m. update May 10:

The body of one occupant of a hot air balloon that caught fire and crashed has been recovered and police searched Saturday for two others feared dead, Virginia State Police said.

The three were in a balloon Friday night that witnesses said crashed amid screams for help from the balloon.

The body was found in a heavily wooded area shortly before midnight, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Saturday. The balloon and gondola carrying the pilot and two passengers have not been found, she said.

Because of the time elapsed since the crash about 8 p.m. Friday, the search for two other occupants has shifted from a rescue to a recovery operation, Geller said. More searchers were called in Saturday.

Police received eyewitness reports that two 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 WWBT TV.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," the station quoted her as saying. "'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.

The crash occurred near the Meadow Event Park in rural Caroline County, where the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival was being held. The area is about 25 miles north of Richmond.

The festival was scheduled to begin officially on Saturday, but was holding a special kickoff event Friday for a limited number of people. Organizers cancelled the rest of the festival.

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

She 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," Ferguson 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."

Caroline County resident Paula Dustin said she and her family and a friend were watching the balloons inflate and take off when they saw one in the distance that appeared to be in distress.

"We saw a glow, and you could tell the bottom of the balloon was in flames," Dustin was quoted by the newspaper as saying.


8:35 May. 9, original story: Authorities say a hot-air balloon has possibly caught fire and crashed in the U.S., and three people are missing in Doswell, Va.

Several local news media outlets quoted Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller as saying that authorities received a report of the crash Friday evening in Caroline County.

Geller said a pilot and two passengers were believed to be in the balloon's gondola, and that according to witness accounts the gondola caught fire. But she said police had not yet found any wreckage.

Geller said police would search for the balloon throughout the night, initially on the ground and possibly later by air if weather conditions improved. Severe storms were expected in the area.

The Canadian Press

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