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Associated Press
The gondola of a hot air balloon catches fire Friday in near Richmond, Virginia, after it hit a power line as it was approaching a landing area.

2 dead, 1 missing in balloon crash

– A University of Richmond women’s basketball team staff member was one of three occupants on a hot air balloon that crashed in Virginia, a family spokeswoman said Saturday.

The spokeswoman, Julie Snyder, said that Natalie Lewis’ body has not been found. However, state police have described their search as an operation to recover remains.

The remains of the pilot and the second passenger, who have not been identified, have been recovered after being found about 1,500 yards apart in densely wooded areas.

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.

Lewis was in her third year as director of basketball operations for the Richmond women’s basketball program, according to a profile on the university’s website.

Witnesses described a harrowing sight on the special preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was set to open Saturday. The festival was canceled.

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

The balloon was among 13 that lifted off Friday night 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, according to police.

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.

She said another pilot who was interviewed by investigators described how the pilot tried to open vents to release extra-hot air in an attempt to keep the balloon from rising faster.

“Based on witness accounts, he did everything he could to try to save the passengers’ lives,” Geller said.

Johnson said the crash near the park about 25 miles north of Richmond occurred in an instant.

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