Egyptian Hot Air Balloon Crash Kills 19 Foreign Tourists

At least 19 foreign tourists died after a hot air balloon caught fire and exploded in mid-air during a sightseeing trip near the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, health officials said.

The balloon was carrying mostly Asian tourists, as well as Europeans and an Egyptian pilot, when it crashed into a field today, Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Hani Abdel-Latif said by phone. One of the three survivors -- a Briton -- died of injuries sustained in the crash, Mohamed Sultan, deputy head of the country’s emergency services, said by phone.

The incident comes as the government struggles to revive an economy hurt by declines in tourism and investment, and mired in political disarray since the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Tourism is one of the country’s main sources of foreign revenue, and the sector has been battered as the protests and violence gripping Egypt over the past two years has deterred some visitors.

The balloon caught fire at an altitude of around 300 meters (984 feet) and there was an explosion before it went down on the west bank of the Nile, Abdel-Latif said. It fell into a sugar cane field near Luxor, which is built around the ancient city of Thebes, and is one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

The dead included nine people from Hong Kong, Badawi Masry, the head of Luxor province’s media department, said by phone from the crash site.

Ministry Investigation

Also killed were four Japanese and two from France, an Egyptian and a Hungarian, Health Ministry official Khaled El-Khateeb said in a statement carried on the state-run Middle East News Agency. The tally was based on information provided by the company and Luxor health officials, he said. Tour company Thomas Cook U.K. & Ireland said in a statement that three of its British customers had been killed and another was hospitalized.

The accident took place between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., Ahmed El-Sawi, the chairman of Sky Cruise, the Luxor-based company which owns the balloon, said by phone. He said he had heard reports that some of the tourists had jumped from the balloon to escape the fire, though he couldn’t confirm them.

A committee from the civil aviation ministry had arrived in Luxor to investigate the crash, Civil Aviation Minister Wael El-Maadwai told Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr, the local branch of the Arabic satellite channel. He said it was too early to draw conclusions about the cause, and noted that this was clearly a situation when the normal failsafes on board such balloons failed to prevent the fire.

Flights Halted

The Egyptian pilot and a U.K. national were transferred to Cairo for treatment, Luxor Governor Ezzat Saad El-Sayed told Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr. He said the Egyptian had suffered burns over 70 percent of his body and required specialized care while the Briton was suffering from shock because his wife was among those killed.

The Ministry of Tourism formed a committee to investigate the crash, according to an e-mailed statement and pledged the “harshest punishment” for anyone proven to be culpable, it said, citing minister Hisham Zazou.

Companies offering hot air balloon rides were ordered to temporarily halt flights, which were popular among tourists to Luxor. The city is home to pharaonic monuments including the temples of Luxor and Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings where ancient Egyptian rulers including Tutankhamun are buried in underground tombs.

Nine tourists traveling with a Hong Kong tour group were involved in the accident, Kuoni Travel China Ltd. said in a statement on its website today, without identifying their nationalities or providing other details. The Hong Kong government will send three immigration officials to assist residents, according to a spokeswoman of the city’s Immigration Department, who asked not to be identified citing agency policy.

The accident may be the worst for Hong Kong tourists in Egypt since a 2006 bus crash, which killed 14. In that incident, a bus overturned on a highway between the Red Sea resort of Hurghada and Luxor, with no other vehicles involved.

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