Balloon victim's family torn over care

A year after a tragedy in which two died, a Tanzanian crew member remains paralysed in a UAE hospital.

                               Two people died and one person was seriously injured when this hot air balloon made a crash landing in the desert outside Al Ain during an early morning flight Sunday, April 25th, 2010. Photo Courtesy Abu Dhabi Police Department *** Local Caption ***  491c9273-8329-44a2-a71c-5e4fbf91d6ea.jpg
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AL AIN // A year after a fatal hot air balloon crash in which two tourists were killed, Hilary Mtui, 28, who was a crew member on his first balloon flight, remains paralysed in Tawam Hospital.

He longs to see his mother, but his family is faced with the difficult decision of whether to fly him back to Tanzania to be with them or keep him in Al Ain where he is receiving treatment at one of the UAE's leading trauma facilities.

"He was the son that was supporting the family because he had the best job of any of us," his brother, Peter, said yesterday. "Hilary is our mother's favourite. She wants to see him and he wants to see her. We want to fly him home but we are concerned whether he will be able to get the same care in Tanzania."

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Hilary's neck and back were broken when he was catapulted out of, and run over by, the 3,000kg gondola he was riding in a year ago today.

Since then, he has been fighting a lung infection that landed him in intensive care several times, preventing doctors from operating on him, according to his brother and a Tawam Hospital source.

"The doctors have said that he will spend the rest of his life in a bed," Peter said. "This has been devastating for the family. Hilary can smile but can barely communicate. He cannot speak, but can move his lips. Over the past year I have come to learn how to read his lips and understand what he says. He says he misses his mother and wants to see her."

Two tourists - Mukesh Shah, 56, from India and Jean-Pierre Chamignon, 53, from France - were killed in the early-morning crash after the hot air balloon was caught in high winds while coming in for a landing.

Piotr Gorny, now 46, the balloon pilot, was subsequently arrested and sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay Dh200,000 in blood money. He was released after two-and-a-half months when the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) cleared him and the company, Balloon Adventures Emirates (BAE), of any wrongdoing.

Mr Gorny said last year: "There is nothing I could have done differently that could have prevented the accident from happening."

On the day of the crash, wind speeds were 0.7kph on the ground. But as the balloon rose above the sand dunes of Nahel, reaching an altitude of 2,500ft, its GPS recorded wind speeds of 70kph.

Mr Gorny decided to reduce altitude to 1,500ft, where wind speeds were at 45kph. He flew at that altitude for 20 minutes when the wind speed suddenly began to increase.

"No matter how low I flew, the winds got faster and faster," he said in July last year.

"As we came to land at 45kph, I flew over some power lines and saw a clearing on the desert floor between two sand dunes. The landing was perfect, with the gondola upright and the balloon coming to rest atop the sand dune."

Within seconds, the wind caught the balloon, and turned it into a sail, pulling the gondola up above a seven-metre sand dune and back down, dragging it at 15 to 20kph for 300 metres, on its side.

When the balloon stopped, two people were dead and Mr Mtui had broken his neck.

The ballooning company had its licence suspended on the day of the crash, but it was reinstated in October last year.

Following its investigation into the crash, the GCAA imposed new rules on balloon operators. They are required to install a weather station at each take-off site, which must be checked by two pilots before a flight and must store data for two years. They are also required to fit balloons with three-dimensional GPS data recorders, to measure the craft's path and speed.

There was also a small but significant loosening of the rules. Balloons were previously allowed to take off and land at only designated sites.

In an emergency they are now permitted to land anywhere necessary to save lives or property.

Since the crash, BAE has voluntarily installed seat belts in all its balloons and there has been no further incident.