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The Buffalo News (New York)
The family of former Nardin Academy star swimmer Natalie M. Lewis struggled Sunday to grapple with her death in a hot-air balloon accident, after the last of three bodies from the Virginia disaster was recovered.
"Obviously, it's terrible news," said a family spokesman. "Everybody's just trying to do the best we all can."
Virginia State Police notified the family early Sunday afternoon that the body of the third victim, a woman, had been found at about 11 a.m. It was discovered about 100 yards north of where the second body was found 24 hours earlier, the family spokesman said.
The rural crash area, about 25 miles north of Richmond, is thickly wooded, "so while 100 yards doesn't sound like a long distance, it's very difficult terrain," said the spokesman, who was in Virginia but did not want to be identified.
All three bodies were transported to the Richmond Medical Examiner's Office for autopsies and positive identification, a process that State Police spokeswoman Corinne N. Geller said had not been completed late Sunday afternoon.
But the discovery means that all known passengers in the balloon's gondola have been found, ruling out the Lewis family's last hopes for a miracle.
"We are stunned and saddened beyond any understanding over what has happened to our beloved Natalie," the family said in an emailed statement, which also requested privacy. "It has been extremely difficult to deal with this tragedy, but our faith, our family, and our friends all give us strength."
Lewis was a record-setting swimmer from Nardin who became a college star, captain of the University of Richmond Spiders swim team, and most recently the school's director of women's basketball operations. She had been missing and presumed dead after the horrific accident Friday night that was witnessed by hundreds of onlookers at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival in Doswell, Va.
According to witnesses, media reports and police, the 24-year-old University of Richmond graduate had boarded the balloon's gondola with friend and colleague Ginny Doyle, associate head coach of the school's women's basketball team, and the pilot. It was the Buffalo native's first time in a hot-air balloon.
Three hot-air balloons took off from Meadow Event Park just before 8 p.m., heading for a designated landing spot, according to state police. Two landed safely, but as Lewis' balloon was descending, it struck a live power line and caught fire, police said.
Citing witness accounts, police said the pilot tried to "regain control of the balloon and manage the fire," but the two passengers either fell or jumped from the gondola, the basket that hangs beneath the balloon. Witnesses said they then heard an explosion and saw the fire spread before the gondola and balloon separated.
Searchers spent Saturday conducting targeted grid searches by foot to cover an area that was a quarter-mile wide and three miles long, Geller said. The first body had been discovered shortly before midnight on Friday, near the landing site, while the second was found by search crews at 11 a.m. Saturday, about 1,500 yards away, according to the Associated Press.
The search was suspended Saturday night but resumed at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, with more than 100 personnel from multiple police agencies - some with dogs, and some by air - scouring the area. The Federal Aviation Administration also responded to investigate.
The spokesman said the family has not been told any other details about the accident or its cause, but noted that the National Transportation Safety Board is now investigating, "so we'll get an NTSB report at some point." Police and NTSB investigators were still searching for the gondola itself, as well as the balloon, Geller said late Sunday.
The pilot, Daniel T. Kirk, was a retired Army veteran with over 20 years of experience piloting a balloon, and held a commercial balloon pilot license from the FAA.
In the meantime, the spokesman expressed the family's gratitude to police and all of the searchers.
"Natalie was just a wonderful person and a good friend to everybody," he said. "You couldn't ask for a better family member, or niece, or a friend."
The family statement also thanked "the people of Buffalo," who "have provided prayers, support and love" that they felt "from so many miles away over the past two days."
Meanwhile, the tragedy also hit hard at the University of Richmond, where the law school graduation took place on Saturday with a moment of silence, followed by the undergraduate commencement on Sunday. Two weekend baseball games were canceled.
"As alumnae, classmates and colleagues - and as invaluable and devoted mentors to our student-athletes - Ginny and Natalie have been beloved members of our community," President Edward L. Ayers said in a statement on the university website. "Their leadership and friendship will endure in the lives of so many."
Lewis had lived in Richmond since 2007.