Three Britons killed as hot-air balloon explodes at Luxor

(Originally published by the Times.)

Fay Schlesinger and Evan Hill in Luxor

A talented couple from the world of art were among three Britons killed yesterday in one of the worst hot air balloon accidents in history.

Joe Bampton, an antiques specialist who exhibited at the Royal Academy, and his girlfriend, Zsuzsanna Gyetvai, 34, whose prints were showcased by the Saatchi Gallery, died with 17 others as they took a dawn flight over the Valley of the Kings.

Yvonne Rennie, a 48-year-old NHS worker, also died. Her husband, Michael, was the sole tourist to survive. He is believed to have jumped from the basket along with Mr Bampton and the Egyptian pilot. Mr Bampton had five hours of surgery for fractured ribs and internal bleeding, but died in hospital during the afternoon.

The pilot survived with 60 per cent burns, doctors said. The other victims came from France, China, Japan and Egypt.

Mr and Mrs Rennie, from Perth in Scotland, married less than five years ago and were enjoying the rare chance of a week together. Mr Rennie, 49, worked for the construction giant Carillion, which often took him away from home.

He was flown to a Cairo hospital, where he was said to be in a stable condition. Doctors expected him to be released last night. James Watt, the British Ambassador, visited Mr Rennie in hospital and later said that he remembered nothing of the accident.

Witnesses to the 6.30am crash described a botched landing attempt after the balloon, one of a group, came in to land. Tangled ropes appeared to cause a gas pipe to rupture, and the balloon rose suddenly to more than 300 metres before bursting into flames.

The burnt shell of the balloon and basket, and the 18 initial victims, landed in fields of sugar cane.

The British couples, who booked their trips through the tour operator Thomas Cook, had checked in to five-star hotels a few hundreds yards apart on the Nile on Wednesday and were due to depart today.

Mr Bampton, from Clapham, South London, and Ms Gyetvai, originally from Hungary, had travelled to Egypt for the second time in two years with the particular dream of experiencing a hot air balloon ride.

They met several years ago at Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea, West London, where Mr Bampton specialised in valuing antique carpets and rugs. Ms Gyetvai worked as an artist under the name Zsi Chimera after moving to Britain in about 2001.

Gary Willcox, whom she divorced in 2005, described her yesterday as “open-minded, creative and an optimist”. He said: “It is a shock. I feel for her poor mum and dad in Hungary.”

Pictures published online by Ms Gyetvai showed her to be an active and seasoned traveller, swimming in Sicily and hiking in the mountains. Family friends of Mr Bampton said that he was more reserved and diligent.

Nick Carter, a senior auctioneer at Lots Road, said: “Joe was a very peaceful, laid-back, quiet person to be around and could be really sharp and pretty funny too. Zsi was very lovely as well and we’ll all miss her. She was the opposite of him, in that he was laid-back and she was strong and very direct, but they complemented each other and had a very lovely relationship.

“Alarm bells rang as soon as we heard news about the crash and everyone was getting a bit panicky. It’s really hard to take, especially in a firm where we are all like brothers and sisters.”

Yesterday, the maisonette that the couple shared was quiet but for the ringing of an unanswered phone. Their landlady, Karen Harkness, said: “My nine-year-old daughter loves them and she will be devastated.”

Mr Bampton’s mother, Maureen, was at her home, an 18th century farmhouse in Wallasey, Merseyside, yesterday but was too upset to comment. Her husband, Tony, a specialist in antiques, died in his early 60s.

Mrs Rennie, an administrative worker at NHS Tayside, was staying at the Sonesta Hotel in Luxor with her husband. They had married in Gretna Green and he celebrated the birth of his first grandson about a year ago, neighbours said.

Kathleen Lumsden, their neighbour, said: “He’s going to wake up to dreadful, dreadful news . . . he would have been very protective of Yvonne, I would imagine. He will be shattered.”

Ms Lumsden added: “They were adventurous people — Mike was.” She recalled his enthusiasm. “He was quite excited because for his birthday she bought him lessons driving a tank.”

Additional reporting: Kaya Burgess, Kat Lay, Russell Jenkins, John Simpson