More than 50 people remained in hospital on Tuesday recovering from serious burns sustained in near-simultaneous explosions of hundreds of gas balloons during an election campaign gathering organized by the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) on May 4.
The balloons went up in flames in still unclear circumstances, casing a huge ball of flames and injuring scores of Armenians attending the event in Yerevan’s main Republic Square. At least 154 people, most of them young HHK members or supporters, were hospitalized.
A spokesperson for the Armenian Ministry of Health told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that 56 victims have not yet been discharged. Most of them are kept in a Yerevan hospital specializing in treatment of burns.
A senior doctor there, Hrayr Hakobian, said two persons remain in intensive care with injuries of “medium severity.” He said they might require plastic surgery later on.
The Armenian police launched a criminal investigation immediately after the blasts that overshadowed the HHK’s election campaign personally led by President Serzh Sarkisian. Police officials suggested that the balloons were accidentally ignited by a cigarette or lighter.
The criminal case was opened under articles of the Criminal Code dealing with negligent handling of explosive materials. Nobody has been arrested so far.
A police spokesman said investigators have conducted more than 100 forensic tests and questioned about 200 individuals. But he would not say if they plan to prosecute any of those individuals.
Sergey Hayrapetian, a senior official at the Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations dealing with fire safety, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that it is still unclear what type of gas was used for inflating the white balloons that carried HHK emblems.
Safety standards normally require balloons used for public events attended by a large number of people to be filled with helium, an inert gas that does not burn. The balloons purchased by the HHK from a still unknown supplier were apparently filled with a cheaper and easily inflammable gas.
In one Yerevan shop, helium-filled balloons are available for 700 drams ($1.8) apiece. Its manager, Karine Babajanian, said she could also sell methane-filled balloons at less than half that price but does not do that for safety reasons.
In her words, balloon explosions at weddings and other private parties have not been uncommon in Armenia. “So many weddings were disrupted in that way,” Babajanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Karen Avagian, the head of the HHK’s youth wing, dismissed suggestions that the ruling party deliberately ordered cheaper balloons to economize on campaign expenses. He argued that the balloons absorbed a fraction of the money spent on the May 4 event that mainly featured live performances by Armenian pop singers.
Avagian also insisted that the HHK leadership is not responsible for the incident that shocked the nation. “Until that day those balloons were on sale and nobody knew what they are filled with, how they are filled and who is responsible for that,” he said.
The HHK also came under media and opposition fire for continuing the show after the blasts. The party’s election campaign manager, Hovik Abrahamian, has rejected the criticism, saying that an abrupt halt to the event would have caused more chaos and made it harder for ambulances to reach the sprawling square.