Egypt hot-air balloon crash kills 18
Photograph courtesy of tourist Christopher Michel.
A hot air balloon flying over Egypt’s ancient city of Luxor caught fire and crashed into a sugar cane field today, killing at least 18 tourists.
The casualties included British, French, Japanese nationals and nine tourists from Hong Kong, a security official said. Three survivors of the crash — two tourists and one Egyptian — were taken to a local hospital.
The balloon was carrying at least 20 tourists when it caught fire over Luxor, triggering an explosion in its gas canister, before plunging at least 1,000ft (300 metres) from the sky.
It crashed into a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, 320 miles (510 kilometres) south of Cairo, said the official.
Bodies of the dead tourists were scattered across the field around the remnants of the balloon. An AP reporter at the crash site counted eight bodies as they were put into body bags and taken away. The security official said all 18 bodies have been recovered.
Cherry Tohamy, an Egyptian living in Kuwait who was on holiday in Luxor, was in another balloon which was landing when she heard an explosion and saw flames from a balloon above.
She told the BBC: “Our pilot told us that the balloon had hit a high pressure electrical cable and a cylinder on board exploded.
“People were jumping out of the balloon from about the height of a seven-storey building.”
She said ambulances were at the scene within 15 minutes.
The balloon came down in sugar cane fields. Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion before seeing plumes of smoke as the balloon caught fire.
US photographer Christopher Michel was in another balloon, taking some aerial shots, at the time of the crash.
He told the BBC: “We flew over the ancient ruins. Just before landing in the cornfields, I heard an explosion and saw smoke. I think it was the balloon behind mine.
“I wasn’t sure what had happened at first. It was only when we landed we heard the full extent of what happened.”
Hamdy Shabaan, operations manager at another operator, Sinbad hot air balloons, said the basket was on fire when it fell to the ground. Hot air balloon trips usually take place at sunrise over the Karnak and Luxor temples as well as the Valley of the Kings.
Sixteen people were hurt, including two British women, when a balloon crashed during a tour of Luxor in April 2009. The balloon was believed to have hit a mobile phone transmission tower near the banks of the Nile.
Former policewoman Linda Lea (67) from England, still suffers from the multiple injuries she sustained in that crash.
She said today: “I cannot believe this has happened again. They promised to tighten safety procedures after my crash. Flights were stopped for a time.
“These balloons are just too unstable. There is not enough training of staff. There were about 22 or 23 in my balloon when it crashed and maybe there were too many then and too many in today’s accident.”
Following the 2009 crash, early morning hot air balloon flights over the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile were suspended for six months while safety measures were tightened up.
During the break, all 42 pilots from the eight companies who operate flights had extra training.
Other initiatives to improve safety brought in included confining all take-offs to a new balloon “airport” and limiting the maximum number of balloons up at the same time to eight. Previously as many as 50 could share the air space.
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 Luxor.
The site of the accident has seen past crashes. In 2009, 16 tourists were injured when their balloon struck a mobile phone 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 leader Hosni Mubarak and the political turmoil that followed and continues to this day. Luxor’s hotels are currently about 25 per cent full in what is supposed to be the peak of the winter season.