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Fiery balloon accident kills 19 tourists in Egypt

LUXOR, Egypt — The terror lasted less than two minutes: Smoke poured from a hot air balloon carrying sightseers on a sunrise flight over the ancient city of Luxor, it burst in a flash of flame and then plummeted about 1,000 feet to earth. A farmer watched helplessly as tourists trying to escape the blazing gondola leaped to their deaths.

Nineteen people were killed Tuesday in what appeared to be the deadliest hot air ballooning accident on record. A British tourist and the Egyptian pilot, who was badly burned, were the sole survivors.

The tragedy raised worries of another blow to Egypt's vital tourism industry, decimated by two years of unrest since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The southern city of Luxor has been hit hard, with vacant hotel rooms and empty cruise ships.

The deaths also prompted accusations that authorities have let safety standards decline amid the political turmoil, though civil aviation officials said that the balloon had been inspected recently and that the pilot may have been to blame, jumping out rather than stopping the fire.

The balloon was carrying 20 tourists — from France, Britain, Belgium, Japan and Hong Kong — and an Egyptian pilot on a flight over Luxor, 320 miles south of Cairo, officials said. The flights provide spectacular views of the ancient Karnak and Luxor temples and the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of Tutankhamun and other pharaohs.

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

The balloon then ascended rapidly, the investigator said. The fire detonated a gas canister and the balloon plunged about 1,000 feet into a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, a security official said.

The investigator and the security official spoke to the Associated Press 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," said Hassan Abdel-Rasoul, a farmer in al-Dhabaa. "They were trying to flee the fire but it was on their bodies."

One of those on fire was a visibly pregnant woman, he said.

Amateur video taken from another balloon and shown on Al-Jazeera Mubasher TV showed the balloon's final moments.

Smoke is seen rising for several seconds from the gondola. The balloon itself catches fire with a flash, and in an instant, it bursts and falls as a fireball to the ground, trailing smoke. Egyptians on the balloon filming the scene can be heard crying and gasping in horror at the sight.

Among the dead were nine tourists from Hong Kong, four Japanese, two Britons, two French, and a Belgian, according to Egyptian officials. There were conflicting reports on the nationality of the 19th victim.

The toll surpasses what was believed by ballooning experts to be the deadliest accident in the sport's 200-year history: In 1989, 13 people were killed in Australia.

Fiery balloon accident kills 19 tourists in Egypt 02/26/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 12:55am]
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