x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Survivor recounts Al Ain balloon crash

Four months on, Christine recalls the harrowing landing, and comforting the daughter of a fellow passenger killed in the accident.

View from the balloon during the flight that crashed on April 25.
View from the balloon during the flight that crashed on April 25.

AL AIN // Just minutes after this photo was taken from the gondola of a hot-air balloon, the vessel crashed to the ground, killing two passengers and leaving a young man paralysed for life. Now, four months to the day since the tragedy in the desert near Al Ain, the woman who took the photo has spoken for the first time of her ordeal.

In the moments after the crash Christine, 40, was the one who tried to comfort the grief-stricken daughter of Mukesh Shah, an Indian passenger on the Balloon Adventures Dubai flight, as she lay weeping next to her father's body. She also spoke to Hilary Mtui, 27, the Tanzanian crewman left paralysed as he lay waiting for medical attention. Also dead was a French aviator, Jean-Pierre Chamignon, 53.

Although she is back home in New Zealand, Christine contacted The National after reading an account by the balloon's pilot, Piotr Gorny, of the fateful flight. Christine and her mother Beverley, 71, who was with her on the day, have vowed never to set foot in a hot-air balloon again. "It was a traumatic experience which has caused discomfort and has required some ongoing treatment, but we are thankful that we were able to walk away from this," Christine said. "We are very disappointed at the lack of courtesy and communication by the pilot and the company either at the time or since."

She said she was worried about the weather conditions that day, but put her faith in Mr Gorny and trusted his decision to fly - even if she has second-guessed it since. The General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) has cleared Balloon Adventures Dubai and Mr Gorny, 45, of any wrongdoing. Christine remembers the pilot saying he would be hearing from the company's partner, Peter Kollar, about whether the balloon would be going up despite poor weather conditions.

When the OK came, the balloon went up to 2,500 metres, where wind speeds increased, prompting the pilot to descend. The winds were no less strong 1,000 metres lower. Last month, Mr Gorny told The National that in 16 years as a hot-air balloon pilot and instructor he had never seen such weather conditions. After coming in to land "low, hard and fast, we then hit the ground with a mighty thud," Christine said. "I looked across at Beverley and we sort of smiled at each other as if to say, that was a hard landing. But it didn't stop. We crashed into the ground at least two more times. There never was a gentle landing. Beverley kept hitting her head against the side of the basket. I recall reaching across and trying to hold her down so that she wouldn't bounce around so much.

"Beverley, Mr Shah's daughter and I all lost our footing. We were bouncing around inside the basket with only our grips on the handholds keeping us inside. We then came to a stop. Everything was quiet for a moment and then people started moaning." As the dazed passengers assessed the situation, Mr Gorny went to the top of a sand dune to catch a mobile telephone signal to summon help. Within hours of the crash, he was placed under arrest. He spent two-and-a-half months in prison before an appeals court judge found him innocent and he was released.

Balloon Adventures Dubai are waiting for their flight licence to be reinstated. The company had no comment about the version of events told by the family. "Everything we have had to say, we have already said," a representative said. Looking back on that day, the family prefer to remember those who came to their aid rather than ponder how their Dubai holiday went so horribly wrong. "We would like to say how grateful we are to those who supported us either on the day or subsequently, specifically the police, staff at Tawam Hospital, Arabian Adventures and the GCAA," Christine said. @Email:ealghalib@thenational.ae