May 11, 2014 8:00 pm

Body of third victim found in fiery U.S. balloon crash

DOSWELL, Va. – Searchers on Sunday found the body of the third victim from the crash of a hot air balloon that drifted into a power line, burst into flames and fell into a heavily wooded area in Virginia, police said.

Police have not released the victims’ names, but family members and the University of Richmond said associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were passengers on the balloon that crashed Friday.

Donald Kirk on Sunday said his son, Daniel T. Kirk, was piloting the balloon.

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READ MORE: Hot air balloon catches fire in Virginia; missing passenger identified

The website of Daniel T. Kirk’s company says he had more than 20 years’ experience as a hot air balloon pilot. The Starship Adventures site also said Kirk had a commercial balloon pilot license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Steve Hoffmann, who said he built the Eagle balloon that Kirk was piloting and taught him to fly, called Kirk “one of the nicest guys in the world” and a consummate professional.

“He was very careful,” Hoffmann said. “Something definitely went wrong. This is not the kind of flying Dan would do.”

Witnesses to the crash described a harrowing sight on the special preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was set to open Saturday. The festival was cancelled. About 740 people attended the preview event.

The balloon was among 13 that lifted off Friday night 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.

She said another pilot 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.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the crash.

Troy Bradley, past president of the Balloon Federation of America, said most serious accidents on balloons – including fires, electrocution or baskets becoming severed – happen after hitting power lines. Most of the time it’s due to pilot error, he said.

Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas and Steve Szkotak and Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond contributed to this report.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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