Officials have found one body after a hot air balloon hit a power line, caught fire and then shot up into the sky before exploding and crashing in eastern Virginia.
Two were still missing and presumed dead, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said during a news conference on Saturday morning.
"We are still looking for the other two and the wreckage," she said. "Of course our goal right now is to locate the other two occupants.
A regional investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was looking into the cause of the accident, according to the agency. Virginia State Police, the Federal Aviation Administration, local law enforcement and Emergency Medical Services were conducting a ground search on Saturday, according to a statement posted on the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival site.
A pilot and two passengers were on board one of three hot air balloons that took off from the Meadow Event Park in Caroline County, Va., on the eve of the Festival just before 8 p.m. Friday, Geller said. The balloons attempted to land a short time later at a designated landing area, according to witnesses.
Two of the three successfully touched down, but a third hit the power line as it neared the ground, igniting a fire. It is believed that the balloon crashed northeast of the park.
"As the third balloon made its descent, the balloon made contact with a live utility wire that in turn sparked a fire," Geller said. "The fire spread quickly."
The pilot tried to open the top of the balloon in an effort to get the fire under control, but the balloon rose quickly, Geller said. Witnesses then heard two explosions and, at one point, the gondola and balloon separated, she added.
Local resident Carrie Hager-Bradley told NBC12 she was on her way home after a trip to the grocery store when she saw the balloon in flames.
Hager-Bradley said she could hear cries from those on board.
"They were just screaming for anybody to help them. 'Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help, I'm going to die, oh my God, I'm going to die,'" she told the station.
Her daughter saw what appeared to be an occupant of the balloon fall to the ground, Hager-Bradley added.
Cole Holocker, 18, told NBC News he was headed to North Carolina with his family on Route 301 near Army base Fort A.P. Hill when he noticed smoke billowing in the distance.
“We saw black smoke coming from an object," he said. "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.”
Holocker, a college student, said he and his family pulled the car over to get a better look, and as the smoke began to dissipate, they could see the structure of the balloon "actually collapsing."
"There was nothing below the balloon. It looked like the basket had burned away,” he said. "(The balloon) was shrinking. As it started to lose air out of it, it collapsed to one side … and then it started falling at a faster rate, and then it fell behind the tree line.”
Holocker estimated he was about 5 to 10 miles away from the crash site.
Hot air balloon teams from all over the United States had been expected to participate in the festival.
F. Brinley Bruton contributed to this report.
First published May 9 2014, 5:49 PM