LUXOR, Egypt: A hot air balloon carrying tourists over Egypt’s ancient city of Luxor caught fire Tuesday, prompting some passengers to leap to their deaths before the craft crashed, killing at least 19 in one of the world’s deadliest ballooning accidents.
After the early morning crash, authorities suspended hot air balloon flights, a popular tourist attraction in the southern city of Luxor, while investigators worked to determine the cause. The crash raised accusations that authorities have let safety standards fall amid the political instability since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The balloon was carrying 20 tourists – from France, Britain, Belgium, Hungary, Japan and Hong Kong – and an Egyptian pilot on a sunrise flight over Luxor, officials said.
According to initial indications, it was in the process of touching down after 7 a.m. when a landing cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire erupted, an investigator with the state prosecutor’s office said.
The balloon then shot up in the air, according to the investigator. The fire set off an explosion of a gas canister and the balloon plunged some 300 meters to the ground, according to an Egyptian security official. It crashed in a sugar cane field outside Al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, 510 km south of Cairo, the official added. “I saw tourists catching fire and they were jumping from the balloon. They were trying to flee the fire but it was on their bodies,” said Hassan Abdel-Rasoul, a farmer in Al-Dhabaa. He said one of those he saw on fire was a visibly pregnant woman.
The crash immediately killed 18, according to Luxor’s governor, Ezzat Saad. Two Britons and the Egyptian pilot were taken to the hospital, but one of the Britons died of his injuries soon after. The other Briton and the Egyptian, who state media said suffered severe burns, were flown to Cairo for further treatment.
Among the dead were nine tourists from Hong Kong, four Japanese – including a couple in their 60s – and two other Britons, according to Egyptian officials and tourism authorities from the home countries.
France’s Foreign Ministry said two French citizens were killed.
Hot air ballooning is a popular pastime for tourists in Luxor, usually done at sunrise to get a dramatic view over the pharaonic temples of Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, a desert valley where many pharaohs, notably King Tutankhamun, were buried.
Luxor has seen crashes in the past. 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.
After the 2009 accident, Egypt suspended hot air balloon flights for several months and tightened safety standards. Pilots were given more training and a landing spot was designated for the balloons.
But Tuesday’s crash raised accusations of fallen standards, and many in Luxor feared it would further damage tourism in a city that relies on foreign visitors.
“Tourism is dying here already and the tourists killed in the balloon will make things worse,” said Mohammad Osman, head of Luxor’s Tourism Chamber. He blamed civil aviation authorities, who are in charge of licensing and inspecting balloons, and accused them of negligence.
“There is no oversight, and no one is checking anything. 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.”
Civil Aviation Minister Wael al-Maadawi, who flew to Luxor to oversee the investigation, said the balloon that crashed had been inspected earlier this month as a requirement for renewing the company’s license. Speaking to Al-Jazeera Mubasher television, he said safety standards were “normally high” and that there must have been extreme circumstances that led to the crash.
“This is a painful accident,” he said. “It is premature to say whether it is maintenance or a human error until the investigation is over.”