The hot-air balloon that erupted in a fireball over Egypt killing 19 people - nine of them from Hong Kong - was in "appalling condition" and should never have been allowed to leave the ground, a top Luxor official said last night.
General Mamdough Khaled, director of security for the ancient Egyptian capital, told Xinhua: "The initial findings of the investigation show there is no criminal suspicion. But the balloon was in an appalling condition before take-off."
Operator Sky Cruise did not return calls for a response. But sources close to the company told Xinhua that the pilot, Moman Mourad, had reported a problem with the gas cylinder to the ground controller and tried to land before the accident.
Official sources in Egypt's aviation sector told Xinhua that initial investigations pointed to human error and said the pilot should have locked the gas valve before a gas hose exploded. It said he jumped from the balloon before fighting the fire.
Mourad is now in the intensive care unit of a Cairo hospital with severe burns.
The consular affairs director of the Chinese embassy in Cairo, Zhang Baoqi, called on Egyptian authorities to release full details of the investigation as soon as possible. The Egyptian government said an investigation report would be completed within "two to three weeks".
Relatives of the Hong Kong victims - five women and four men aged 33 to 62 from three families - arrived in the Egyptian capital late last night along with officers from the Immigration Department, who will be joined by a fresh team sent yesterday, including a senior forensic pathologist and a specialist to help identify the bodies.
The other victims were from France, Japan, Britain, Hungary and Egypt.
The only other survivor, Briton Michael Rennie, 49, was being treated at the Nasser Institute Hospital, also in Cairo. He and Mourad were airlifted from Luxor International Hospital on Tuesday after the explosion, which is understood to have happened when a cable got tangled around a gas tube and a fire broke out.
The director of the medical tourism department of Nasser Institute Hospital, Dr Mohamed Salah El Din, said Rennie did not jump from the balloon. "He was thrown outside the balloon … It was 15 to 16 metres [from the ground]," Salah El Din told the South China Morning Post.
Rennie miraculously escaped serious injury and is expected to be discharged from the hospital today, although the doctor said he was "very depressed" about the death of his wife, Yvonne, 48.
"Actually he refused to speak. He doesn't want anyone to remind him of the accident," said Salah El Din.
He said three bodies placed at the hospital were so badly burned that DNA tests would be needed for the identification.
"It'll take two days to do a DNA test," the doctor said.
A ceremony was held at the site of the wreckage yesterday morning where the local governor Ezzat Saad laid flowers and presided over prayers and one minute's silence for the victims.
A spokeswoman for the governor could not confirm if someone had been smoking on the balloon, but said one of the victims was not a heavily pregnant woman as reported by some media outlets.
The Hospital Authority confirmed its team of psychologists helping relatives would be led by Rosalie Lo Shuk-yee, who was sent to help after the hostage crisis in Manila in 2010, in which seven Hong Kong tourists and their guide were shot dead.
Egyptian authorities have banned all hot-air balloon flights indefinitely and Prime Minister Hisham Qandil ordered an investigation into the tragedy.
Associated Press, Xinhua, Agence France-Presse