Egyptian balloon tragedy that killed Hong Kong tourists 'down to fuel leak'

Technical report says crash that killed nine Hongkongers was probably due to gas leak, but it deliberately stops short of pointing a finger

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 3:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 4:53pm

The Egyptian aviation specialist who led a 10-month investigation into the hot-air balloon crash that killed 19 people, including nine Hong Kong tourists, in February last year, said yesterday that his report blaming a fuel leak for the disaster was not intended to apportion blame.

An earlier criminal investigation found that human error caused the tragedy in the ancient city of Luxor, but the new report was based on technical evidence.

"The sole objective is to draw lessons from the accident and to prevent this from happening in the future," said Captain Ayman El-Mokadem, head of aircraft accident investigation with Egypt's Civil Aviation Authority, who led the latest investigation.

"We didn't mention that it was a human error because the framework is a technical investigation, not a criminal one."

The report found that a faulty hose was the likely cause of a gas leak that led to an explosion, causing the balloon to catch fire and shoot up into the air, moments before it was due to land. "We only set up a probable cause, but we cannot put our finger in the face of somebody and say they are to blame," El-Mokadem said.

Investigators briefly interviewed the pilot of the ill-fated Sky Cruise balloon, Moman Mourad, in the hours after the accident while he was being treated for burns to 70 per cent of his body. This was followed by a more comprehensive interrogation when he was more stable.

Investigators also analysed photos and video footage and spoke to eyewitnesses. The report was sent to relatives of the victims and to Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department.

It made a series of recommendations including more regular safety and maintenance checks.

In September, relatives of the victims met security minister Lai Tung-kwok to push for a coroner's inquest. Hong Kong investigators were not allowed to join the Egyptian investigation, despite a request.

Bahaa Ahmed, a pilot with Magic Horizons, a hot-air balloon operator in Luxor, said business dropped 95 per cent last year. "We suffered a lot since the accident and also what's going on in Egypt," he said, referring to the country's political turmoil. "We used to carry a lot of Chinese tourists, but not any more."

Ahmed said the findings would not impact on his business because staff already carried out more checks than required.

Calls to Sky Cruises went unanswered yesterday. All operators were grounded after the accident but most are up and running again.