The bodies of two people aboard a hot-air balloon that crashed in central Virginia on Friday night were recovered Saturday morning as crews continued to search a densely wooded area for a third person riding in the balloon when it struck a power line and burst into flames.
Amateur videos provided to Virginia State Police indicate that two people either fell or jumped from the burning balloon as it plunged to the ground, police spokeswoman Corinne Geller told reporters Saturday morning. There was little hope of finding the victims alive.
"We are now transitioning from a rescue operation to a recovery operation," Geller said.
The balloon pilot struggled to contain the fire and keep the balloon airborne, but it plummeted to the ground in flames as the pilot attempted to land just before 8 p.m., Geller said. Video taken by bystanders showed the balloon as it struck a live power line and was immediately consumed by orange flames.
"He [the pilot] did everything in his power to save his passengers' lives and his own," Geller said.
Witnesses said they heard people in the balloon screaming.
"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," Carrie Hager-Bradley told TV station WWBT. "'Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help! I'm going to die! Oh my God, I'm going to die!'" recounted Hager-Bradley, who said she saw the balloon in flames while on her way home from a grocery store.
Geller said of the two people seen falling to the ground: "Whether they leapt on their own or fell, we don't know."
Debra Ferguson told the Free Lance-Star of
"As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there," Ferguson said. "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."
Search crews aided by dogs conducted a grid search Saturday in a debris field near the balloon's intended landing site in a field where two other balloons landed safely Friday night. Searchers were hoping to find the remains of the gondola and the balloon, which separated after the structure caught fire, Geller said.
She said items from the balloon were recovered in the debris field, located in a wooded area with heavy underbrush. The first body was recovered just before midnight Friday, and the second at about 11 a.m. Saturday.
Thirteen balloons went airborne as part of a "Friday Flights Happy Hour'' at the first Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which organizers said was canceled after the deadly accident. Two landed safely in a field where the burning balloon was attempting to land, and the others landed safely elsewhere, Geller said.
Event planners had expected up to 20,000 people to attend the event Saturday and Sunday at Meadow Event Park in
Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Meadow Event Park, appeared at a Virginia State Police press conference but offered few details. "It's just a shocking event for everyone,'' he told reporters. "We're trying to work through this."
The victims' bodies were transported to the state medical examiner's office for positive identification. Geller said police have the names of all three balloon occupants and have been in touch with their families. The names were not released.
Geller said heavy underbrush and a large debris field are complicating the efforts of about 100 searchers.