At least 19 foreign tourists die in hot air balloon crash in Egypt

Updated 4:46 p.m. EST

LUXOR, Egypt A hot air balloon flying over Egypt's ancient city of Luxor caught fire and crashed into a sugar cane field on Tuesday, killing at least 19 foreign tourists, a security official said.

A British tourist and the Egyptian pilot, who was badly burned, were the sole survivors.

The tragedy raised worries of another blow to the nation's vital tourism industry, decimated by two years of unrest since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The southern city of Luxor has been hit hard, with vacant hotel rooms and empty cruise ships.

It also prompted accusations that authorities have let safety standards decline amid the political turmoil and infighting, although civil aviation officials said the balloon had been inspected recently and that the pilot may have been to blame, jumping out rather than stopping the fire.

The balloon was carrying 20 tourists — from France, Britain, Belgium, Japan and Hong Kong — and an Egyptian pilot on a flight over Luxor, 510 kilometers (320 miles) south of Cairo, officials said. The flights provide spectacular views of the ancient Karnak and Luxor temples and the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of Tutankhamun and other pharaohs.

According to initial indications, the balloon was in the process of landing after 7 a.m. when a cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire erupted, according to an investigator with the state prosecutor's office.

The balloon then ascended rapidly, the investigator said. The fire detonated a gas canister and the balloon plunged about 300 meters (1,000 feet) to the ground, crashing in a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, a security official said.

Both the investigator and the security official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

"I saw tourists catching fire and they were jumping from the balloon," said Hassan Abdel-Rasoul, a farmer in al-Dhabaa. "They were trying to flee the fire but it was on their bodies."

One of those on fire was a visibly pregnant woman, he said.

Amateur video taken from another balloon and shown on Al-Jazeera Mubasher television showed the balloon's final moments.

Smoke is seen rising for several seconds from the gondola, silhouetted against the risen sun. The balloon itself catches fire with a flash, and in an instant, it bursts and falls as a fireball to the ground, trailing smoke. Egyptians on the balloon filming the scene can be heard crying and gasping in horror at the sight.

The bodies of the tourists were scattered across the field around the remnants of the balloon, as rescue officials collected the remains.

The crash immediately killed 18, according to Luxor Gov. Ezzat Saad. Two Britons and the pilot were taken to a hospital, but one of the Britons died of his injuries soon after.

Among the dead were nine tourists from Hong Kong, four Japanese — including a couple in their 60s — two French, a Belgian and a second Briton, according to Egyptian officials, although there were conflicting reports on the nationality of the 19th victim.

Egyptians inspect the site where a hot air balloon exploded over the ancient temple city of Luxor on February 26, 2013. The hot air balloon caught fire and exploded over Luxor during a sunrise flight, killing 18 tourists, including Asians and Europeans, sources said. The balloon carrying 21 people was flying at when it caught fire, a security official said.
Egyptians inspect the site where a hot air balloon exploded over the ancient temple city of Luxor on February 26, 2013.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

An aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters, blamed the pilot, saying initial results of the investigation showed he jumped out when the fire began, instead of shutting off valves that would have prevented the gas canister from exploding.

But the crash raised accusations that standards have fallen. Mohammed Osman, head of the Luxor's Tourism Chamber, blamed civil aviation authorities, who are in charge of licensing and inspecting balloons, accusing them of negligence.

"I don't want to blame the revolution for everything, but the laxness started with the revolution," he said. "These people are not doing their job, they are not checking the balloons and they just issue the licenses without inspection."

Hot air ballooning, usually at sunrise over the famed Karnak and Luxor temples as well as the Valley of the Kings, is a popular pastime for tourists visiting the area.

The site of the accident has seen past crashes. In 2009, 16 tourists were injured when their balloon struck a cellphone transmission tower. A year earlier, seven tourists were injured in a similar crash.

Egypt's tourism industry has been decimated since the 18-day uprising in 2011 against autocrat leader Hosni Mubarak and the political turmoil that followed and continues to this day.

Luxor's hotels are currently about 25 percent full in what is supposed to be the peak of the winter season.

Scared off by the political turmoil and tenuous security that has followed the uprising, the number of tourists coming to Egypt fell to 9.8 million in 2011 from 14.7 million the year before, and revenues plunged 30 percent to $8.8 billion.

Poverty swelled at the country's fastest rate in Luxor, which is highly dependent on visitors to its monumental temples and the tombs of King Tutankhamun and other pharaohs. In 2011, 39 percent of its population lived on less than $1 a day, compared to 18 percent in 2009, according to government figures.

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