Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rides suspended after balloon blaze

At least 19 tourists killed in Egypt tragedy

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LUXOR, Egypt -- A hot air balloon carrying tourists over Egypt's ancient city of Luxor caught fire Tuesday, and some passengers trying to escape the flames leaped to their deaths before the craft crashed in a sugar cane field. At least 19 tourists were killed in one of the world's deadliest ballooning accidents.

The accident was a new blow to Egypt's tourism industry, which has been gutted by the country's turmoil the past two years. The southern city of Luxor, site of some of the most dramatic pharaonic temples, has been particularly hard hit, with empty hotels worsening the area's poverty.

After the early morning crash, authorities suspended hot air balloon flights, a popular tourist attraction, while investigators worked to determine the cause. The crash raised accusations authorities have let safety standards slip amid the political instability since the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak -- though the civil aviation chief insisted his ministry keeps stringent inspections of balloons.

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.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa said the Canadian Embassy in Cairo has confirmed with local authorities no Canadians have been affected by this accident.

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

The balloon then shot up in the air, the investigator said. The fire set off an explosion of a gas canister and the balloon plunged some 300 metres (1,000 feet) 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 kilometres south of Cairo, the official said.

The official and the investigator 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. 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.

Bodies of the dead tourists were scattered across the field around the remnants of the balloon, as rescue officials collected the remains in body bags.

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 or tourism authorities from the home countries.

Hot air ballooning is a popular pastime for tourists in Luxor, usually at sunrise to give a dramatic view over the pharaonic temples of Karnak and 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.

The toll puts the crash among the deadliest involving a recreational hot air balloon. In 1989, 13 people were killed when their hot air balloon collided with another over the Australian outback near the town of Alice Springs.

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 standards had fallen.

"Tourism is dying here already and the tourists killed in the balloon will make things worse," said Mohammed Osman, head of the Luxor's Tourism Chamber. He blamed civil aviation authorities, who are in charge of licensing and inspecting balloons, accusing them of negligence

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2013 A9

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