UPDATE, 9:00 AM:
(CNN) — The rescue effort at the site of a hot air balloon crash in Virginia has transitioned into a recovery operation, officials said Saturday. There were three occupants in the hot air balloon, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corrine Geller said. One body has been recovered so far.
Images from the scene showed the balloon soaring in the air with its bottom part ablaze.
Witnesses described people falling or jumping out of its basket from dizzying heights. Police are searching for its pilot and two passengers, who are missing after the crash 25 miles north of Richmond.
‘I’m going to die’
Those aboard the balloon pleaded for their lives, Carrie Hager-Bradley told CNN affiliate WWBT.
“They were just screaming for anybody to help them. ‘Help me, help me, sweet Jesus, help, I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die,'” she said.
Her daughter told her she saw someone falling out of the basket. Then Hager-Bradley also saw someone plummeting to the ground.
Officers beat paths through thick forests and over difficult terrain in the dark to look for them, said Corrine Geller, state police spokeswoman.
Authorities don’t know where the three people believed on board are and have not confirmed any fatalities or injuries.
State troopers also hope to find the balloon and its basket, but so far, they have seen no trace of anyone or anything, Geller said. They searched through the night with the help of police from two counties and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Balloon and gondola detached after the flames burst out, witnesses told police, so rescuers are fanning out over two areas in hopes of finding them.
State troopers want to send up aircraft to scour the rural area from above, but stormy weather on the horizons saw them grounded early Saturday, Geller said.
Inclement weather was not a factor during the balloon’s flight, Geller said.
Festival of colors
Meadow Event Park in Caroline County filled with people and bright colors Friday as passenger balloons swelled with hot air at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival.
Twenty balloon flying teams were expected to participate, organizers said. But after the tragedy, all events were canceled.
Leading up to the accident, three inflatables went airborne and headed for a designated landing zone, Geller said. The first two landed normally, but the third hit an electric wire.
Flames burst out, and the troubled balloon stayed aloft, where it could be seen in distress over a subdivision. Cell phone images showed its basket on fire high off the ground.
The pilot fought the blaze and opened the top of the balloon to let hot air out to prevent it from climbing farther, Geller said.
Two explosions rang out from the balloon, witnesses told police, then gondola and the balloon separated, and the inflatable soared skyward.
David Griffith looked on in disbelief from below. “There was no way these people were coming out of that,” he told WWBT.
He, too, said he saw two people plunge from the basket.
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Chandler Friedman and Aaron Cooper contributed to this report.