TAUNGGYI, Myanmar — A man was burning right before my eyes. I spotted his arms flailing in the inferno after I witnessed a young woman screaming as she dashed out of the flames with her hair and feet on fire. It was a real-life, Halloween night horror story — and nobody who witnessed it should have been surprised that it happened.
Just a few moments before the explosion, tens of thousands of other people attending the Tazaungdaing Festival in Taunggyi, Myanmar watched a hot-air balloon carrying thousands of fireworks plunge out of the sky and drop into the crowd. At least 14 people were seriously injured and two of them died the next day, according to a report in Myanmar-based Irrawaddy.org. The news called it was the worst accident at the festival in recent memory.
But the accident was only the latest in a long line of balloon disasters.
“They have an accident of some sort every year,” a local business owner told me. “It’s very dangerous.”
The main attraction of the festival, which takes place over six days each fall, are the hot-air balloon competitions. Different communities and ethnic groups compete to build the most beautiful balloon and provide the best fireworks show — a treacherous combination.
In the fireworks competition, the hot-air balloons carry large plastic platforms loaded with thousands of skyrockets and fireworks.
It seemed like a bad idea, but hey, all I kept hearing from the locals and reading about online was how much fun it was. One Portuguese tourist who attended the festival the night before said the event was a like rave that “just happened to have balloons.” No one mentioned the fireworks platform that accidently exploded on the ground in 2012, or the balloon that crashed into a telephone pole and started a fire the year before that.
There were so many other signs that the festival was a disaster-in-the-making. First off, the balloons weren’t made of any fire-retardant materials— just paper, which was a fire waiting to happen. And that wasn’t even the greatest hazard.
Once handlers get a balloon mostly filled with hot air, they secure a pole inside that’s covered in flammable material and drenched in lighter fluid. This provides the hot air that lifts the balloon into the sky. After that’s ignited, the handlers carry out the platform full of fireworks and secure it to the balloon, which is hovering just overhead.
This is when it gets really dangerous. As the platform is tied to the balloon, I noticed bits of flaming debris from the fuel falling onto the fireworks. The handlers try to catch the flaming debris with a bucket tied to a pole, but it was clear from the beginning that the platform could catch fire and turn the whole thing into a giant fireball. That, or the fireworks could go shooting at point-blank range at the heads of the crowd, standing just a few yards away.
Some of the balloon teams timed their fireworks to strike the ground as the platforms ascended. The crowd whoops it up as they dodge the incoming skyrockets, or dance over whizzing, spinning firework. Some spectators get hit; I suffered a bad bruise and minor burn from a firework fired down at me from hundreds of feet above.
So, there I was after the crash, gaping at the man trying to crawl out of the flames and thinking about the almost utter lack of safety. This was no freak accident. It’s a miracle that it hasn’t happened before.
I don’t know whether the man who was caught in the wreckage was one of the people who died later. I only know that it could have been me — or anyone else there.
What happens if one year a balloon goes down in the center of the festival, where people are playing arcades games or drinking beer or riding the Eggbeater? I don’t want to know, and apparently neither do the country’s authorities.
After the accident, I saw no signs of a thorough investigation. There was no yellow tape, no photographs, nobody questioning witnesses. With no investigation, how can the government prevent a similar disaster from happening again?
The victims were taken to the hospital and the crash site cleaned up. About 90 minutes after the accident, I heard music and saw the next group of competitors take the field to launch their balloon.
The crowd cheered.
Greg Sandoval is a former staff writer for The Verge, The Washington Post and CNET. He is currently based in Paris, France.