DOSWELL, V.A. (KRQE) – Hot air balloonists everywhere are in shock. A popular balloon pilot who took off Friday night in a Virginia balloon festival hit a set of power lines in a crash that turned dramatic and deadly. Captain Daniel Kirk was a familiar face in Albuquerque, too. He was a very experienced balloon pilot who loved the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Kirk is also at the center of Friday night’s horrific crash in Virginia.
“All we saw was just stuff falling from the sky, the basket, the balloon, everything was on fire,” recounts witness Joanne Strange.
It was the first ever Mid-Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Festival near Richmond, Va. Yet, it ended almost as soon as it began once the balloon hit the power lines and burst into flames.
“Witnesses tell us they heard two explosions from the hot air balloon. At one point, the gondola and the balloon separated and then the balloon took off at a rapid pace,” says Virginia State Police’s Corinne Geller.
Three people were on board – two University of Richmond basketball staff members and the craft’s pilot, Daniel Kirk.
In 2011, Kirk attended Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta.
“The competition and the flying. This is the largest hot air event in the world,” he said in an interview at the event.
Kirk had been flying since the early ’80s and his passion for balloons brought him to Albuquerque.
Kirk’s website shows “Starship,” the balloon involved in the Virginia crash, flying over the Rio Grande during another Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta event.
Balloon Fiesta records show he did not participate in last year’s fiesta. Kirk was among more than 20 teams participating in the Virginia festival, an event that led to “Starship’s” last flight.
Witnesses report seeing two of the passengers jump from the gondola once it caught fire Friday night.
“You could hear them screaming, ‘Please, dear God. Sweet Jesus. Help us. We’re gonna die. Oh, my God, please help us. Please help us,’ ” witness Carrie Hagar-Bradley says.
The search for Kirk and his two passengers began immediately. So far, recovery crews have found the remains of Kirk and one of his passengers. The search for the second passenger continues.
Kirk appeared to have a clean safety record. In the 2011 Balloon Fiesta video, he claimed to have not had a single injury in almost 30 years of flying.