On the ground, "It was complete silence," eyewitness Nancy Johnson said. "There were people praying. It was horrible."
The balloon crashed Friday night ahead of a balloon festival. It was among 13 balloons that took off from Meadow Event Park, home to the State Fair of Virginia, and was approaching a landing site nearby. Two of the balloons landed safely before the third hit the live power line.
The pilot attempted to retain control of the balloon and snuff the fire and two passengers either jumped or fell from the gondola, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
"Then witnesses recall hearing an explosion and the fire continued to spread," Geller said. The gondola and the balloon then separated.
Geller said the two bodies were found about 1,500 yards apart.
An air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report would be released on the crash in 10 days. Heidi Moats said investigators were seeking records on the balloon and the pilot.
Troy Bradley, past president of the Balloon Federation of America, said most serious accidents on balloons — including fires, electrocution or baskets becoming severed — happen after hitting power lines. Most of the time it's due to pilot error, he said.
Fatal accidents happen less often than with other types of aircraft, Bradley said.
"Hundreds of thousands of flights will go without any notice. That one that hits the news gets all the attention, but ballooning is a very, very safe form of aviation."
The crash occurred on the eve of the official start of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, which was canceled followed the crash. The area is about 25 miles north of Richmond.
Johnson said the crash occurred in an instant.
"One minute the balloons were hovering in a field behind Event Park, the next everyone is pointing at sky," she said.
Carrie Hager-Bradley said she saw the balloon in flames on her way home from the grocery and heard people yelling.
"They were just screaming for anybody to help them," she told WWBT TV. One person screamed, "Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help. I'm going to die. Oh my God, I'm going to die."