The University of Richmond held a bittersweet graduation Sunday as students and professors grappled with what one expert called a “very odd” accident — a hot air balloon explosion that killed two beloved staffers from the basketball team along with the pilot.
Recovery teams on Sunday found the third body, two days after the balloon hit a power line and caught fire during the opening night of a weekend festival, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. Teams were still searching for the wreckage of the balloon.
Sam Parks, president of the Ballooning Federation of America, who rushed to Virginia after the accident to help search teams, told NBC News: “Things like this hardly ever happen.”
“Ballooning is inherently safe,” Parks said. “This is obviously a very rare, very odd accident.”
“The balloon pilots adhere to those regulations just as strictly as a 747 pilot would,” Parks said.
The pilot of the doomed balloon, Daniel Kirk, earned his certification almost two decades ago, according to FAA records. Kirk’s father, who confirmed that his son was the pilot, said that his son was always cautious.
The crash was “just a freak accident,” father Donald Kirk told NBC News.
Geller, the police spokeswoman, said that based on witness accounts, the pilot “did everything he could in his power to save his passengers’ lives and his own.”
Authorities confirmed that they had found the first two bodies Saturday.
The university previously identified the two people on board with the pilot: Ginny Doyle, an alumna and a coach for the women’s basketball team, and Natalie Lewis, a former championship swimmer for the school and a director for the basketball team.
“Ginny and Natalie have been beloved members of our community,” said Richmond President Edward L. Ayers. “Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many.”
“I just can't believe this happened,” team member Amber Battle, who will be a senior next season, told The Associated Press. As many as three members of the women’s basketball team are graduating seniors, according to the roster.
The university canceled weekend basketball games but went ahead with weekend graduations as planned. School spokeswoman Cynthia Price said that a moment of silence was held for the women, and the ceremony provided a distraction for the shaken school community.
“For a few hours people were focused on the graduates and their futures,” Price told NBC News.
President Ayers briefly called attention to the loss the school had suffered during the beginning of Sunday’s commencement, and Saturday’s law school graduation also included a moment of silence for Doyle and Lewis.
The National Transportation Safety Board and FAA will investigate. Witness accounts indicate that weather and wind speeds didn’t appear to cause the balloon to collide with the power line, Parks and Geller said.
Parks described ballooning as something of a team sport, in which a crew follows the path of the balloon from the ground and meets it where it happens to land, because the trajectory of the balloon is ultimately based on breeze directions.
Twelve other balloons ascended Friday night and landed safely, but something caused Kirk’s balloon — embossed with the message “support our troops” — to hit the power line.
The collision sparked the fire, which “spread quickly,” Geller said. The balloon the shot “so far away and so high,” Geller said, which Parks said makes sense because the balloon is designed to be propelled by hot air provided by propane.
“An excessive amount of heat would make the balloon rise rapidly,” Parks said, adding that it was probably the propane tank — or tanks — that caused the explosion.
Because the balloon traveled so far off course before erupting, crews struggled to locate the bodies in heavily wooded Caroline County, Geller said.