Created on Thursday, 28 February 2013 Written by MARIAM RIZK,Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's lead investigator said Thursday he is seeking to interview the only tourist who survived the crash of a hot air balloon in the southern city of Luxor, a British national who jumped from the balloon after it caught fire and before it plummeted to the ground, killing 19 others, including his wife.
The Briton, Michael Rennie, escaped with only minor injuries and no burns, a neurologist who is treating him at a Cairo hospital, Mahmoud el-Shennawy, told The Associated Press.
The only other survivor — the balloon's Egyptian pilot, who also jumped out — suffered heavy burns.
The sightseeing balloon on a sunrise flight Tuesday over the ancient monuments of Luxor was carrying 20 tourists from Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium, Hungary and France. It was in the process of landing when a fuel line for the burner heating the air in the balloon broke, sparking a fire, according to preliminary indications, investigators have said.
Rennie and the Egyptian pilot, Momin Murad, managed to escape the balloon's gondola when it was still relatively close to the ground. The balloon then rose back up some 300 meters (1,000 feet) into the air. The fire spread to the balloon itself, which burst, sending it plummeting into a sugar cane field.
Witnesses have said some of the tourists still trapped in the burning balloon as it rose jumped to their deaths trying to escape.
Amateur video taken from another balloon flying nearby shows it crashing it back to the earth like a fireball into a sugar cane field.
Rennie told his doctors that "he fell in a muddy area, and this helped him," el-Shennawy said. "There are no fractures. He only has minor bruises ... and scratches." His wife was killed in the crash, the doctor said.
Rennie has also refused to speak to representatives from his own embassy, el-Shennawy said — apparently overwhelmed with grief over his wife's death. Rennie has declined to speak to reporters, and an Associated Press reporter was not allowed access to his room.
The head of the Civil Aviation Authority's technical investigation into the accident, Walid el-Moqadem, said he has has asked to speak to Rennie, who Egyptian media said did speak with a separate, criminal prosecutor investigating the crash to rule out foul play.
Rennie told criminal investigators that most of those in the balloon squatted when the fire broke out, following the pilot's instructions, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Watan.
Investigators have not yet spoken to the pilot because of his injuries.
El-Moqadem said countries of some of the crash victims have asked to join the probe.
He said so far Hong Kong, Britain, Japan and Hungary will not be sending investigators, and will be granted an advisory role in the investigation in line with regulations. He said for now countries of the victims will be appraised of progress through emails.
Investigators are still looking into the causes of the crash and refused to give details, el-Moqadem said earlier. Investigators speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe was still ongoing said initial results suggested a landing cable tore the fuel tube and that the pilot should have shut of a valve that would have prevented the fire from spreading.
El-Shennawy said Rennie is expected to be released Friday and will head straight to the airport.
"Some psychiatrists, and myself, talked with him. He seems to be accepting the situation," he said.