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Wed May 06 19:30:28 SAST 2015

Egypt's prime minister orders investigation into balloon crash

Sapa-AFP | 27 February, 2013 08:09
A night watchman stands guard near the wreckage of a hot air balloon that crashed in Luxor.
Image by: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY / REUTERS

Egypt's prime minister has ordered an investigation following the deaths of up to 19 tourists in a fiery hot-air balloon crash during a sunrise flight over the ancient temple city of Luxor.

The balloon, carrying 20 tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, France, Britain and Hungary, along with the pilot, was flying at 300 metres (1,000 feet) when it caught fire, exploded and plunged to earth, a security official said.

The pilot and one tourist survived by jumping out of the basket at some point before it hit the ground, said an employee of Sky Cruise, which operates the balloon rides. Both were taken to hospital.

A video shot by a passenger on another flight appears to show smoke pouring from the balloon's basket for some time before the balloon itself collapses, leaving the basket full of tourists to freefall to earth.

"This is terrible, just terrible," the employee told AFP by telephone, declining to give her name. "We don't yet know what happened exactly or what went wrong."

Luxor Governor Ezzat Saad imposed an immediate ban on all hot-air balloon flights in the province as Prime Minister Hisham Qandil ordered the investigation.

Security services cordoned off the crash site in Luxor's dense sugar cane fields, as police and residents inspected the charred remains of the balloon.

"There was a terrifying sound when the balloon exploded," one resident, Ahmed, 40, told AFP.

"Bodies engulfed in flames were falling out of the balloon," said Youssef al-Tayyeb, another resident who witnessed the accident.

The balloon had been floating over the west bank of Luxor, one of Egypt's most renowned archaeological sites and home to the famous Valley of the Kings and the grand Temple of Hatshepsut, when it exploded.

There was confusion over the exact death toll and the tourists' nationalities. Different official bodies gave conflicting figures and details.

An Egyptian security official said 19 tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, Britain, France and Hungary had died. The health ministry put the toll at 18 dead.

The French foreign ministry confirmed two of its citizens were among the dead.

Britain's Foreign Office said two British nationals and one British resident had died. Later, it named them as Yvonne Rennie, Joe Bampton and Hungarian-born Suzanna Gyetvai and said another Briton was "in a stable condition" after surviving the plunge.

Nine of those killed were thought to be from from Hong Kong, and four from Japan.

"We believe that there is a high possibility that nine of our customers have died," said Raymond Ng, general manager of travel agency Kuoni, which organised the Hong Kongers' tour.

The five women and