Coaches, pilot remembered after balloon crash
- Associated Press
- May 12, 2014 - 5:00 PM
RICHMOND, Va. — The two University of Richmond basketball coaches killed in a hot-air balloon crash were a beloved long-time assistant who was part of one of the most revered moments in the program's history, and a woman who was hardly out of college and always cheerful and willing to help.
The pilot, Daniel T. Kirk, was also killed when the balloon drifted into a power line and burst into flames Friday. He had 20 years of flying experience and was affectionately known as "Capt. Kirk."
At the university's graduation Sunday, a moment of silence was held for the coaches — director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis and associate head coach Ginny Doyle.
As a senior for the Spiders, Doyle set an NCAA record — for men or women — by making 66 consecutive free throws, an accomplishment that earned her dubious recognition from CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer.
Packer, an 81.9 percent free-throw shooter at Wake Forest, scoffed at the record on air and noted that women use a slightly smaller ball, which in his mind made it less impressive.
Hearing that Packer was going to be in Richmond on another matter, the school invited him to come shoot against Doyle, and about 1,200 fans watched the duel at the Robins Center on Feb. 2, 1992.
It was no contest: Doyle, using a men's ball, made 20 of 20, with only two of them touching the rim. Packer, to the delight of the crowd, missed eight of his 20 attempts.
Her record has since been broken, but years later her foul shooting, as well as her love of the game and her players, remained on display, according to Robert Fish, a Richmond alum who also has called women's games on radio.
Doyle, 44, was hired by Bob Foley at Richmond in 1999 and stayed on through a couple of coaching changes.
Lewis was a four-year letter-winner in swimming who just completed her second season with the basketball program. Her job required organization skills as she made travel, hotel and bus arrangements for the team, planned for meals and handled day-to-day basketball business.
In the grind of a season, broadcaster Matt Smith said, she was a shining light, too.
"Sometimes when you work in sports, coaches can be so high strung and so focused on the next game or what's going on that you feel almost uncomfortable when you go into the office, but her being the first one that you would see, she always had a smile on her face," Smith said.
The University of Richmond on Monday released statements from the women's families expressing thanks for the support they've received.
"Natalie loved people. She was our constant source of happiness and joy," Lewis' family said in the statement. "She used genuine words and selfless actions to gently help others be more successful and more fulfilled."
Doyle's family recalled Ginny as a "daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, niece, athlete, teammate, coach, teacher, colleague, friend and storyteller" who "touched the lives of many and lived life to the fullest."
Kirk, of Delaware, was known by fellow pilots as "Capt. Kirk," the hammy commander of the USS Enterprise on the TV series "Star Trek."
Steve Hoffmann, who said he taught Kirk to fly and built the balloon he was piloting, called him "one of the nicest guys in the world" and a consummate professional.
"He was not a hot dog, not a risk taker," Hoffmann said. "It's so unbelievable that everyone's in shock."
The balloon was among 13 that lifted off Friday on a preview night for the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival when it drifted into a power line, burst into flames and fell into a heavily wooded area about 25 miles north of Richmond.
On the ground, "it was complete silence," spectator Nancy Johnson said. "There were people praying. It was horrible."
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said another pilot interviewed by investigators described how the pilot tried to open vents to release extra-hot air in an attempt to keep the balloon from rising faster.
"Based on witness accounts, he did everything he could to try to save the passengers' lives," Geller said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
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