The third body from a Virginia hot-air balloon crash was recovered this morning, making it a certainty that Natalie M. Lewis, a record-setting swimmer from Buffalo’s Nardin Academy, was among those who died in the disaster.
Lewis, who went on to star in college competition, had been missing and presumed dead after the horrific accident Friday night that was witnessed by hundreds of onlookers in central Virginia. But only two bodies had been recovered as of late Saturday night.
According to her family and police officials, the 24-year-old woman was one of three persons aboard the gondola, or basket, below a soaring balloon that struck a live utility line and burst into flames during a hot-air balloon festival near Richmond, Va.
The third body was found about 100 yards from one of the other two in a densely wooded area, a family spokesman said today. The identities of the three bodies have not been released by police, but now all three have been found.
Police initially found the bodies of the balloon’s male pilot and one of the two female passengers. Search efforts were called off Saturday night, but resumed today and authorities continue to search for the gondala itself.
Until the third body had been found, the Lewis family had continued to pray for a miracle, said the spokesman, who was with the family at the crash site.
“Obviously, it’s terrible news,” he said today, after the third body was found.
The apparent loss of a bright, vivacious young woman who recently got engaged to a young Buffalo man is a devastating blow for her family, the spokesman told The Buffalo News in an emotional telephone interview on Saturday.
Lewis was enthusiastic about taking her first hot-air balloon ride, and as the balloon took off, she excitedly sent family members a cellphone video showing the balloon takeoff from her vantage point in the gondola, the spokesman said.
The balloon had been in the air for about an hour, and the pilot was just heading in for a landing when the balloon struck the power line and burst into flames, he added.
“Natalie loved to try new things. ... She was one of those very special, very positive people who always had a can-do attitude. When she walked into a room, she just lit it up with energy,” the family spokesman said.
Similar comments came from several badly shaken family friends who spoke to The News Saturday night.
“I’ve known this girl since she was 8 years old. She was one of the elite swimmers to come out of Western New York,” said Scott Vanderzell, Lewis’s former coach with the Tonawanda Titans Swimming Program. “I’m in absolute shock. The world has lost an outstanding young woman.”
Lewis’ parents, Evan and Patricia Lewis of North Buffalo, drove all night to get to Virginia after learning about the accident late Friday. They spent all day Saturday at the accident site, waiting for word on the search efforts. They were accompanied by some other family members, and by Natalie’s fiancé, Buffalo native Michael Dougher.
Lewis has lived in Richmond since 2007, when she finished a stellar career as a Nardin Academy swimmer and got a scholarship to swim for the highly regarded University of Richmond team, known as the Spiders.
After graduating from Richmond in 2011, she was hired as director of Women’s Basketball Operations.
This year, Lewis decided to attend the annual Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival in Doswell, about 25 miles north of Richmond. According to several media outlets in Virginia, she got into the gondola of one balloon with her friend Ginny Doyle, associate head coach of the Richmond women’s basketball team, and the pilot.
As part of the festival, three hot-air balloons took off from a location known as Meadow Event Park about 8 p.m. Friday, said Corrine Geller, a spokeswoman for Virginia State Police. The three balloons headed toward a designated landing zone in a field off Ruther Glen Road.
“Two of those hot-air balloons safely landed. As the third balloon was making its approach, it did strike a power line and catch fire,” Geller said at a news conference. “Witnesses told us they heard two explosions from the hot-air balloon, and at one point, the gondola and the balloon separated, and the balloon took off at a rapid pace.”
Police said hundreds of people who had assembled to watch the balloon festival witnessed the incident. One onlooker’s disturbing photograph of the flaming gondola was circulating worldwide on the Internet on Saturday, and several horrified witnesses told their stories to Virginia newspapers and television stations.
Witness Carrie Hager-Bradley told Virginia TV station WWBT that she saw the balloon in flames and heard people yelling from the gondola.
“They were just screaming for anybody to help them,” Hager-Bradley told WWBT. She said one person screamed from the gondola, ‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, I’m going to die. Oh, my God, I’m going to die.’ ”
Federal accident investigators were on scene and trying to determine what happened. State police said they did not believe wind conditions were a factor.
Troy Bradley, a past president of the Balloon Federation of America, said fatal accidents are rare in hot-air ballooning. He said most serious accidents involve fires, electrocution or other damage related to collisions with power lines. He added that most accidents are due to pilot error.
Friends and family members described Natalie Lewis as a kind, beautiful and intelligent young woman who loved swimming and children. She earned a degree in education from Richmond University.
She set numerous swimming records at Nardin Academy and earned several gold and silver medals at the Empire State Games, competing against the state’s best young swimmers.
At an All-Catholic League swimming meet in November 2003, she helped set an All-Catholic record for the 200-yard medley, led Nardin to a team victory and was selected as Most Valuable Swimmer at the meet.
Lewis will be remembered not only for her prowess as a swimmer, but for the positive attitude she projected to all around her, said two former Titans teammates, Marissa Dressel and Tyler Carver.
“She was a role model for me and all swimmers,” Dressel said.
“Natalie was an amazing swimmer, one of the hardest-working and most dedicated athletes I have ever met,” Carver said. “She loved swimming so much, it was contagious. She rooted so hard for her friends, and had such a positive and encouraging attitude, people wanted to be around her.”
In addition to her parents, Lewis had a sister, Caroline, and a brother, Evan Jr.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org