The two passengers in a hot air balloon that burst into flames last night were members of the University of Richmond Women’s basketball team coaching staff, it has been revealed.
It also emerged today that they lept from the basket and witnesses heard them screaming for help.
‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die,’ witnesses reported hearing them scream as the basket and balloon separated while engulfed in flames Friday evening.
The identities of the three people on board- the two passengers and the pilot- have not been released as police have only been able to find two of the remains- and cannot accurately identify which individuals have been found. The remains have been sent to the Office of the State Medical Examiner for a positive identification before the next of kin is formally notified.
The search continues for the third person, though the classification has been switched from a search and rescue to a recovery operation.
Fiery crash: This hot air balloon carrying at least three people caught fire mid-flight and went down in Virginia
Frantic: The pilot reportedly started taking the necessary security precautions like trying to open the top of the balloon because the fire would cause the balloon to travel higher faster
Before the split: At one point after the explosion, the basket and the balloon separated
‘Because of the time that has transpired since the hot air balloon crash Friday evening and the fact that we have not been able to make any contact with any of the three occupants that were in the hot air balloon we are now transitioning from a rescue operation to a recovery operation at this time,’
State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Saturday morning.
Under investigation: Heidi Moats, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, briefed on the recovery operation Saturday afternoon
The discovery of the second body came a few hours after the press conference.
‘Just before midnight we were able to locate one of the occupants.
‘We do know who was on the – the two passengers and the pilot- we have been in contact with their families overnight but at this point we are not going to identify which one of those occupants has been recovered.’
Heidi Moats, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, briefed on the recovery operation Saturday afternoon.
The names of the individuals have not been officially released, but local newspaper The Henrico Citizen has reported that the two passengers were members of the University of Richmond women’s basketball coaching staff. The team’s website names the male head coach and five female assistant coaches.
The incident took place at around 8pm at the Meadow Event Park in Caroline County – the site of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival.
An eyewitness reported seeing one or two balloons drifting into power lines and bursting into flames in the skies over Carmel Church Road.
Three balloons took off at the same time and the first two had no issues with their landing, but that wasn’t the case for the third.
‘As the third balloon made it’s descent, it made contact with a live utility wire. That in turn sparked a fire with the hot air balloon,’ Ms Geller said.
Final moments: Festival goer Nancy Johnson posted this image on her Instagram account showing the explosive balloon (far left) before the fire
Desperate: The balloon that caught fire was the third in a group of three that were due to land at a festival but after the other two made safe descents, the third balloon hit a utility wire and caught fire
‘The fire spread quickly the pilot of the hot air balloon, based on witness accounts and the other pilots who were on the ground, began doing his various safety maneuvers and trying to manage the fire.’
She said that witnesses saw the pilot ‘try to open up the top of the balloon which is standard procedure because the added heat and intensity of the fire will actually make the balloon rise faster so he was taking every effort he could to manage and extinguish the fire.’
People who were present at the event recalled seeing some passengers leaping from the basket.
‘According to witnesses they say they heard an explosion and it was after that that the basket and the balloon actually separated,’ Ms Geller said.
‘We are still in the process- and we spent all night- searching for the wreckage, the basket, the balloon.’
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.
Search continues: Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corine Geller (left) said that the search went on through the night with helicopters (right) and will continue through Saturday with the aid of hundreds of state troopers
‘They were just screaming for anybody to help them,’ the station quoted her as saying.
‘We saw black smoke coming from an object,’ eyewitness Cole Holocker told NBC News.
‘Couldn’t tell what it was. We thought it might be exhaust from a helicopter around the base and then, when we came close to it, we could see it was a balloon.’
The 18-year-old college student added that he saw the structure of the balloon collapse before it plummeted to the ground, landing behind the tree line.
Festival goer Nancy Johnson posted a photo on her Instagram account showing the ill-fated balloon right before the fire.
Some hot air balloons landed safely in Debra Ferguson’s yard, she was quoted by The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia, as saying.
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.
Investigators gather near a farm in Virginia as they were searching for missing hot air balloon on Friday night
‘As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there,’ the newspaper quoted Ferguson as saying. “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.
A website dedicated to the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival says tonight was supposed to be a special happy hour for up to 1,500 advanced ticket holders to watch balloon teams take off.
In the aftermath of the crash, the festival that was supposed to take place for the first time Saturday and Sunday has been canceled.
The park where the event was supposed to take place is best known for being the birthplace of Triple Crown winning racing horse Secretariat.
Inaugural event: The crash took place during the first ever Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival at the Meadow Event Park in Caroline County