LUXOR: Burning passengers flung themselves from a hot-air balloon basket shortly before it exploded in flames over the archaeological remains of Luxor in Egypt on Tuesday, witnesses said.
Nineteen tourists died in the disaster, including Yvonne Rennie, 48, a hospital receptionist from Perth, Scotland, and Joe Bampton and Suzanna Guetvai, who were artists from south London.
Mrs Rennie’s husband, Michael, 49, a construction firm manager, was the only passenger who survived. He was flown to Cairo’s Nasser Institute Hospital with the pilot, Mohmin Murad, who suffered 70 per cent burns.
Egypt’s civil authorities, led by the local governor and the ministry of civil aviation, which licenses balloons, ordered an inquiry amid claims by tourist officials that inspection standards had lapsed since the revolution two years ago.
Witnesses said that as the balloon came in to land, a sudden jet from a dislodged gas pipe set light to the wicker cradle, and within seconds it was soaring back into the air.
They said passengers, one a pregnant woman and some already on fire, desperately jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. Smoke ebbed up around the balloon, gradually enveloping it, before it collapsed and fell to earth.
It landed in a field of unripe wheat nearby, where its remaining hydrogen canisters exploded, ending any hope of survival for those who remained inside.
‘‘There was a small part of the cradle that had caught on fire,’’ said Abubakr Mohammed Ezz, the pilot of another balloon that was still in the sky at the time. ‘‘We saw the pilot jump out, and then one of the passengers. Then because of the lower weight the balloon went up out of control. Many of the passengers tried to save their lives. They threw themselves out from 1000 feet.’’
A farmer who lives nearby, Yousef Abdel-Hamid, said: ‘‘Some passengers were jumping from the balloon while it was moving, still on fire. They were falling on the sugar cane farms.
‘‘Local residents ran to the sounds of screaming and helped the rescue teams who found the bodies fallen in the fields. We found about eight people who jumped out of the balloon before it crashed to the ground.’’
The disaster was unprecedented in the country’s tourist history. For Luxor’s aircraft operators, such flights have been a daily routine for years. The view from a hot air balloon as dawn rises over the Nile would be the highlight of any Egyptian tour.
Eight balloons from different companies took off together shortly after 6am from the forecourt of the Temple of Hatshepsut on the west bank of the Nile, near the Valley of the Kings. An hour earlier, company drivers picked up the scores of passengers from tourist hotels all over Luxor, driving them in minibuses to the meeting point.
Some passengers were jumping from the balloon while it was moving, still on fire.Witness Yousef Abdel-Hamid
One of the three drivers for Sky Cruise, the company that owned the crashed balloon, said it had taken off as normal. He and the other drivers followed its route to where it was supposed to land, but it got into trouble.
‘‘The fire caught the basket of the balloon,’’ the minibus driver, Yousef Mohammed Amin, 22, said. ‘‘There were four hydrogen tanks on board. One exploded in the air, the other three after it hit the ground.’’
He said he had been the first to reach Mr Rennie. ‘‘He was the first one to jump from the balloon. He was in a hysterical shock. He kept saying, ’Where is my wife?’ He didn’t know that she was dead until he was taken to the hospital.’’
Mr Amin said the Rennies had been in his minibus on the way to the site. ‘‘I was joking with him and his wife,’’ he said. ‘‘She was taking pictures of him while he was not looking. I asked him, ‘Do you know this woman?’ and we were laughing about it.’’
The official investigation will examine how the gas pipe came to leak. Another balloon pilot who was nearby said he thought the feeder gas pipe was dislodged as the ground crew tried to tether the balloon, pulling its rope tight. The ministry of aviation said the balloon had been inspected in recent weeks. But the hot air balloon industry in Luxor has a chequered safety record, with a number of accidents in recent years.
Balloon rides were halted in 2009-10 while safety procedures were tightened. The manager of Sky Cruise, Khaled Hatata, was said to be inspecting the scene of the accident last night.
Mohammed Ahmed, a marketing officer, said the company was being investigated. ‘‘It’s not true that we didn’t pay attention to safety,’’ he said. ‘‘There was a committee from the ministry two weeks ago which checked our balloons. Our licence is valid.’’
But the head of Luxor’s Chamber of Tourism, Mohammed Osman, accused the ministry of civil aviation, which is responsible for granting licences, of letting standards slip since 2010 and particularly since the revolution.
‘‘These people are not doing their jobs,’’ he said.