A University of Richmond women's basketball team assistant coach and staff member were the passengers aboard a hot air balloon that drifted into a power line, burst into flames and crashed in Virginia.

"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."- Debra Ferguson, witness

University administrators said in a news release that associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were two of the three people aboard the balloon that crashed Friday night. Investigators say the remains of two people were found about 1.4 metres apart in dense woods, and the search continued for the third body.

"Words cannot begin to express our sorrow," Keith Gill, the school's athletic director, said in a news release. "We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones."

More than 100 searchers spent Saturday scouring the woods and fields around the crash site for the third victim and any remnants of the balloon. The search was scaled back as darkness approached but was set to resume Sunday. Investigators declined to say whose remains had already been found.

Lewis just completed her second year as director of basketball operations for the women's team, according to a profile on the university's website. The Buffalo, N.Y., native was a four-year letter winner and two-time captain of the Spiders' swim team.

A spokeswoman for Lewis' family, Julie Snyder, called Lewis "an amazing person and a strong person, an athlete engaged to be married."

Doyle, who graduated from Richmond in 1992 after a standout basketball career, served on the team staff for 16 years after that — including nine winning seasons. She earned all-conference honours twice as a player.

"As alumnae, classmates, and colleagues — and as invaluable and devoted mentors for our student-athletes — Ginny and Natalie have been beloved members of our community," university President Edward L. Ayers said in the news release.

The university cancelled two weekend baseball games and held a moment of silence at commencement Saturday for its law school.

Pilot tried to regain control

Witnesses said they heard the anguished pleas of the passengers Friday night as the balloon touched the power line and erupted into flames.

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

The balloon crashed Friday night ahead of a balloon festival. It was among 13 balloons that took off 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.

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. The gondola and the balloon then separated.

Geller said the two bodies were found about 1.4 metres apart.

Fatal accidents less often

An air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report would be released on the crash in 10 days. Heidi Moats said investigators were seeking records on the balloon and the pilot.

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.

Hot Air Balloon Fire

A search team arrives at a command post for the recovery efforts from a hot air balloon accident in Ruther Glen, Va. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Fatal accidents happen less often than with other types of aircraft, Bradley said.

"Hundreds of thousands of flights will go without any notice. That one that hits the news gets all the attention, but ballooning is a very, very safe form of aviation."

The crash occurred on the eve of the official start of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was canceled followed the crash. The area is about 40 kilometres north of Richmond.

Johnson said the crash occurred in an instant.

"One minute the balloons were hovering in a field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky," she said.

Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery and heard people yelling.

"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," she told WWBT TV. One person screamed, "Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die."

Festival kickoff

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. "Then it just took off real fast and disappeared."

The crash occurred during a special festival kickoff event Friday for about 740 people.

Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region were to participate in the weekend festival, said Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the venue.

"It's just a shocking situation for everyone," Hicks said.

Robert Rinck, who was operating a frozen yogurt concession, said he watched the balloons lift off against a beautiful sunset. A few minutes later, someone said a balloon was on fire. He looked up and saw fire coming from the balloon.

"I just didn't know why it was going up and not down," Rinck said.

Johnson, who went to the festival with her husband, photographed the balloon as it rose.

"I turned around and just automatically started taking pictures," she said. "It just kept going up, up, up in the air."

Some hot air balloons landed safely in Debra Ferguson's yard, The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg reported. 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."