Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian, March 01, 2013
The pilot of the balloon that crashed in Luxor, Egypt, on Tuesday – killing 19 people, including three British residents – is fighting for his life in hospital, and remains unaware of what happened after he jumped burning from the balloon, his family have told the Guardian.
Momin Mourad Ali, 29, was flying a balloon carrying 20 tourists over the ruins of Luxor at dawn on Tuesday when the basket caught fire in uncertain circumstances.
According to witnesses, Ali – whose clothes were set on fire – and one guest, 49-year-old Briton Michael Rennie, managed to jump from the stricken balloon while it was still three metres from the ground. Then the balloon rose quickly to a height of 90 metres (300ft), prompting some of the remaining passengers to jump, burning, to their deaths. Those left in the balloon died in the blaze as it fell to earth shortly afterwards.
Ali and Rennie were the only two survivors – Rennie's wife, Yvonne, a receptionist from Perth in Scotland, died in the flames.
"Yvonne was my rock, my friend, my shoulder to cry on," said Rennie in a statement on Thursday, as he recuperated in Cairo, where he was airlifted to hospital following the crash. "She was my world. My heartfelt condolences go out to the other families that have lost relatives around the world in this terrible disaster."
Rennie had a miraculous escape – but Ali's sister said that the pilot, who was airlifted to a military hospital in north-east Cairo, has 70% burns, and does not yet know what happened to his passengers.
"When he wakes up, he asks about the guests," said Marwa Ali, who added that Ali was only awake for two minutes at a time. "But until now he doesn't know what happened because we are afraid to tell him."
Marwa Ali said they had not yet even broached the subject of the circumstances of the crash because her brother is only awake for moments at a time.
His family were themselves uncertain about the chain of events – and were reluctant to believe any of the accounts they had heard so far. "Everyone is talking about what happened but no one knows," said Ali's cousin, Regab Mohamed, who has flown from his home in Dubai to be with the family. He claimed that police had told the family that Ali was one of the last to jump from the balloon – contradicting other eyewitness accounts – and that they were struggling to take in the full horror of the accident.
"Even his mother hasn't seen the video of what happened," said Mohamed. "We are too worried for her."
"He is more than bad," said Ali's cousin, Moustapha Mohamed, who said the pilot faced three operations on Friday, and was expected to be in hospital for at least 10 days.
Photos of the pilot on his family's phones showed a smiling, fleshy man with a shaven head. "He loved his job very much," said his sister, Marwa, who had eaten with her brother only hours before the crash.
"He ate with me the night before," she remembered. "It was very normal. He was very loving to me."
Ali is unmarried, but his family said that he had been their main breadwinner following the death of his father several years ago. They said he had been a balloon pilot for eight years, flew several times a week and was well-known in his community for his flying prowess.
"We couldn't believe what happened," said his sister.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk