DOSWELL, Va. (AP) — 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 operation to a mission to recover the remains, 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,” she said. “`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.
Another eyewitness, Nancy Johnson, said the crash occurred in an instant.
“One minute the balloons were hovering in field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky,” she wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “The crowd went silent in shock. Very sad night.”
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 Saturday. “Then it just took off real fast and disappeared.”
The festival was scheduled to begin officially on Saturday, but was holding a special kickoff event Friday for about 740 people. Organizers canceled the rest of the festival.
Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region were to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the venue, which also is the site of the State Fair of Virginia.
“It’s just a shocking situation for everyone,” Hicks said.
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.
Associated Press reporter Steve Szkotak contributed to this report from Richmond.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .