2 Dead, 12 Injured at Taunggyi Balloon Festival

By Zarni Mann 3 November 2014

RANGOON — Two spectators were killed and at least 12 more sustained serious injuries following a fireworks accident during Taunggyi’s famed balloon festival late on Friday night.

“Eleven people were admitted to our hospital,” said Dr. Paw Tun Oo, medical superintendent at Taunggyi’s Sat San Tun General Hospital. “Two men died the next day due to serious burn injuries.”

Aung Ko Lat, 19, and Khun Hla Sein, 37, both from Taunggyi, died on Sunday afternoon as a result of the incident. Khun Hla Sein was a member of the Khun Tan team, whose balloon caused the fatal incident at the festival during the nightly fireworks competition.

According to sources from the hospital, two women are in critical condition, while the seven other admissions are out of danger but still under treatment. Three other injured people were admitted to a private hospital in Taunggyi and their current condition is unknown.

A hot air balloon from the Khun Tan team was floated at midnight on Friday as part of the town’s famous fire balloon competition, which marks the full moon day of Tazaungdaing.

The balloon went up as planned and the team was celebrating their success when the parachute valve at the top of the vessel blew off, causing it to drop suddenly at the same time as the homemade fireworks attached to the balloon’s basket frame ignited. Some spectators remained in the path of the descending balloon despite a prior safety warning from the jury members of the competition committee.

“The balloon went up for about a hundred feet and fell down right onto the crowd,” said Sai Moon, who witnessed the event. “Most of the people shouted out and warned others to run but some failed to do so. They were busy with their mobiles, taking a shot of the falling balloon.”

Such an incident is a harrowing but sadly familiar feature of the festival, where accidents involving pyrotechnics are common. However, residents of Taunggyi said that the weekend’s incident is the worst one in recent memory.

“I’ve never seen such a terrible fire balloon accident in these years, because this incident claimed more victims,” said Nyein Chan, 32, a Taunggyi local who witnessed the incident at the festival grounds.

“About three people were running while the flames consumed them. We shouted at them to not run but to drop down and roll, but they couldn’t hear us because they were running around with fear. The firemen came and helped to extinguish the flames but they looked terrible, and to me it seems they will not survive,” he added.

The Shan State government is reported by a local freelance journalist to be giving financial assistance to those admitted to hospital, with 50,000 kyats (US$50) each to those with minor burns and 200,000 kyats for those with serious injuries.

However, state government spokespeople could not be reached for comment on the incident.

Elders and residents of Taunggyi said that spectators must in future listen to the competition committee’s warning not to go near the fire balloons, which generally carry around 40 kgs of homemade fireworks, as they are sent skyward.

“Such accidents can happen anytime,” said Tin Win, the secretary of the balloon competition committee. “The spectators need to heed the warning and take care of themselves by watching for the wind direction to understand where the balloons could go.

“In this case, most of the spectators failed to follow our warning. Every year, we have to warn people, including the fire balloon teams, about their safety but only a few listen. If everyone listened and followed the safety rules, such a sad incident would not happen,” he added.