The search for the last passenger missing after a fiery hot-air balloon crash in Virginia has transitioned from a rescue operation to a recovery operation, state police said Saturday.
Search teams located two of the three occupants of the balloon by noon Saturday. Remains were sent to the chief medical examiner in Richmond, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said at a Saturday press conference.
"We have still not located the basket or the balloon, but we do continue to locate debris," Geller said, noting the fire may have burned up the parachute and basket. "It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
Geller says police are hopeful they will find the third occupant by Saturday evening. "We have three deceased people and our focus is on finding the third person," she said.
The incident happened shortly before 8 p.m. Friday evening in Caroline County, Va., after three hot-air balloons took off from Meadow Event Park. Two of the balloons landed safely, but as the third balloon attempted to land, witnesses said it struck a power line and burst into flames.
Twenty balloonists from the Mid-Atlantic region were set 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.
Based on witness accounts, the pilot attempted to regain control of the balloon and manage the fire. At one point, the balloon's two passengers leapt from the basket. Witnesses recall hearing an explosion, and the fire continued to spread. The basket and the balloon then separated.
"As soon as we looked up, the thing blew up right there," witness Debra Ferguson told The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va. "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."
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," the station quoted her as saying. "'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.