RICHMOND, Va. — When Becca Wann glanced at her phone Friday night, she had several text messages she hadn’t seen and missed calls telling of an accident involving Richmond women’s basketball staff members Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis.
She did what seemed perfectly natural to her — she drove to campus.
“I got here and there were about 40 people sitting in the Hall of Fame room,” the senior on the Spiders’ women’s soccer and basketball teams said Tuesday. She said the group included members of the women’s swim team, the women’s basketball team and several athletic department staff members.
In the ensuing hours and days, the concern that brought them together morphed into sadness as details emerged of the fiery hot-air balloon crash that claimed the lives of Doyle, 44, the team’s longtime assistant coach, and Lewis, 24, its director of basketball operations for the last two years.
Information about the accident continued to be uncovered Tuesday when the medical examiner’s office announced that balloon pilot Daniel Kirk and Doyle died of blunt force trauma and Lewis died of acute thermal injuries associated with the fire. The medical examiner’s office did not elaborate, but the term is used to describe severe burns.
In the tight-knit athletic department at Richmond, the last few days have largely been spent together, sharing stories that brought laughter and others that brought tears.
But through it all, Wann and others say the influence Lewis and Doyle had on people has been comforting.
“They loved everything about this school, the community, the closeness of it, and it’s kind of fitting that in this tragedy, what they loved about this school is what’s helping us get through it,” Wann said.
Wann and Katie Sieben, a three-year former teammate of Lewis on the Richmond swim team, said they sometimes think of what Lewis would do in a certain situations.
“She would want us to smile and live every day to the fullest and that’s what she did,” Sieben said, “and I think … that really is how she lived her life. I think that’s really helping us right now.”
Wann recalled one of those instances when she went to Maymont Park in the city, a sprawling place that was one of Lewis’ favorite destinations, to meet her family and friends on Monday in about 90-degree heat. She had brought along a case of water bottles in her car, but spurned her inclination to leave it there.
“I lugged it through Maymont Park, not because I wanted to do that, but because that’s what Natalie would have done,” said Wann, who graduated Saturday. “There’s a hole left in everyone that she knew.”
Also receiving a degree on Saturday was women’s swimming coach Matt Barany, who said his team challenged him several years ago to go for it. He earned his MBA, and Lewis was thrilled for him.
On Friday, she brought cookies to his office to celebrate.
“She told everybody to come down and grab the cookies,” he said. “We had, in my office on Friday afternoon, two alumni and four or five current swimmers, and she came in and said, ‘Oh, my God. All of my favorite people in the same room,’ and she probably would say that to every room she walked into.”
A few hours later, the balloon ride he said she seemed nervous about ended tragically.
Said Barany: “She will be my angel forever.”