Egypt grapples with balloon blast aftermath, orders investigation

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An investigation into the deaths of 19 tourists in Egypt following a hot-air balloon crash in the ancient temple city of Luxor has been ordered by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.

An Egyptian security official, according to AFP news agency, said 19 tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, Britain, France and Hungary had died when the balloon crashed on Tuesday. The health ministry put the toll at 18 dead.

The balloon plunged to the ground after it had been flying at 300 meters (1,000 feet) when it caught fire, exploded and plunged to earth, media reports said.

A total of 20 tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, France, Britain and Hungary, along with the pilot, had been on the balloon trip.

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.

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.

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.

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.

French hot-air balloon expert Philippe Buron-Pilatre de Rozier told AFP the blast could have been caused by a leak after a spark caused by a lighter or a cigarette.

Another reason could be wear and tear due to poor maintenance, said Buron-Pilatre de Rozier. Hot-air balloons such as the ones used in Egypt are generally 40 metres (130 feet) high and can carry up to 25 passengers, he added.

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