Inquest into Egypt balloon tragedy could start at end of year
Relatives of 9 Hongkongers killed in balloon crash attend court briefing
The Hong Kong Coroner's Court is to hold an inquest into last year's hot-air balloon tragedy in Egypt which cost the lives of nine tourists from the city.
It is understood the inquest will not start until late this year at the earliest, according to relatives of the deceased who attended a pre-hearing briefing at the Sai Wan Ho court yesterday.
"We want to find out what happened - from start to finish," said Siu Chi-keung, whose brother Siu Chi-man and sister-in-law Eleni Kwan Pui-man, both aged 37, died in the accident. But he added: "We don't have high expectations."
About 20 witnesses will be summoned, according to police sources. One of the two survivors, Briton Michael Rennie, was understood to have refused to take part due to his "reluctance to renew his memories about the tragedy".
The other survivor was the balloon pilot, Egyptian Moman Mourad. He is involved in a criminal investigation into the accident and cannot attend. The majority of witnesses to be summoned will be locals, including hot-air balloon experts, representatives from Kuoni which organised the ill-fated tour to Egypt, police officers who have been sent to Egypt, and relatives of the dead, said lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung, who has been assisting the families involved.
So far, the Egyptian aviation authority has concluded a technical report on the accident. It suggested that a fuel leak caused by a faulty gas hose caused the balloon to catch fire moments before it landed. The balloon then shot up skywards in flames before crashing back down.
The criminal investigation has yet to be completed.
In a meeting with the country's consul general in Hong Kong in March, relatives heard that a final report would be completed in two months. They have heard nothing since.
Family members, including Siu, want the Hong Kong government and the Beijing-based Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to obtain the report before the inquest as it could prove vital evidence.
They also want Kuoni to explain why it chose to do business with hot-air balloon operator Sky Cruises and insurance company Arab Misr Insurance Group.
The insurance company failed to offer compensation for the deaths. Its policy offers payouts of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds (HK$333,000) per person, but under the condition that no more than one balloon is in the air at any one time.
Dawn hot-air balloon rides over the ancient ruins of Luxor are a tourist staple, with many balloons taking to the skies at the same time.
Siu said families would see what transpires before considering further legal action.
Barrister Raymond Yu Chiu-cheuk said the Coroner's Court did have the power to summon overseas witnesses, but there was little it could do if they refused to come. "The court cannot serve the witness summon [overseas]," he explained.
A police spokesman said the New Territories South regional crime unit was continuing its investigation into the accident and would hand its report in to the Coroner's Court. "We will continue to maintain close contact with the Egyptian police for any follow-up action," he said.
'I said goodbye in my dream'
Wong Kong-sing went on holiday with his wife, her two brothers and a sister-in-law to Egypt in February last year. He was the only one to return home alive.
"I am afraid of heights," Wong said yesterday, explaining why he did not go on the dawn hot-air balloon trip on February 26 which cost the lives of 19 tourists, including nine from Hong Kong. "I was sleeping in the morning, and I said goodbye to my wife in my dream. Then we parted forever."
He lost his 58-year-old wife Ho Oi-ying, her brothers Ho Oi-hing, 54, and Ho Oi-ming, 60, and Oi-ming's wife Tang Yuk-ling, 59. Wong, who is in his late 60s, had to look at eight bodies in all before he had identified his four relatives.
He was one of just six Hongkongers on the tour who had not gone on the balloon trip, along with their tour guide, another Hongkonger. "Ever since the accident, I have to switch the lights on when sleeping at night," he said. His grief has also affected his health. "I've seen the doctor several times, even priests. But they can't solve the problem. I hope to seek peace of mind by finding out the truth."
Ho Ming-leung, the son of Ho Oi-ming and Tang Yuk-ling, is also desperate to know the truth about what happened that February morning over the ancient city of Luxor. "I have always wanted the Coroner's Court to launch an inquest, because I don't know what happened," he said. "My mum and dad went on a trip, and they never came back."