The body of a person aboard a hot-air balloon that crashed in central Virginia on Friday night was recovered overnight by crews that continued to search a wooded area Saturday for the other two people inside 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 either victim 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 aloft, but it plummeted to the ground in flames 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.
Witnesses said they heard people in the balloon screaming for help.
“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,’” said 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 Fredericksburg that she saw balloons landing safely in a field near her yard, then saw another balloon in trouble.
“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 canine teams conducted a grid search Saturday morning 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 aircraft caught fire, Geller said.
The 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. Event planners had expected up to 20,000 people to attend the event Saturday and Sunday at Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Va., north of Richmond. Twenty hot air balloon teams were to attend, according to the event’s website.
Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Meadow Event Park, appeared at a Virginia State Police news conference but offered few details. “It’s just a shocking event for everyone,” he told reporters.
The body that was recovered just before midnight was transported to the state medical examiner’s office for 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.
Two Federal Aviation Administration investigators were at the scene Saturday, joined by representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board, Geller said. The agencies are investigating the circumstances and cause of the accident.