Officials: Tourists killed after hot air balloon goes on fire in Egypt
Hot air balloons take off near the ancient city of Luxor on Tuesday, before the tragedy occurred. February 26, 2013.
A hot air balloon carrying foreign tourists caught on fire while it was in the air near Egypt's ancient city of Luxor, killing at least 14 people, officials said Tuesday.
The blazing balloon crashed to the ground, General Mamdough Khaled, director of security for Luxor Governate said in a statement, according to initial reports.
Khaled said that Luxor International Hospital had received 19 badly burned bodies. However, the Ministry of Health said in a statement that 14 people were dead with four missing and three injured. The discrepancy in the death toll could not immediately be resolved.
Ahmed Aboud, who runs another balloon company and acts as a spokesman for balloon operators in the area, and Khaled both said only two people survived. Khaled said both were in a critical condition.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened.
Aboud said that gas tanks caught fire and ignited the balloon at about 1,000 feet.
But an eyewitness, who did not want to be identified, said the balloon was about 12 feet off the ground when a landing rope was thrown to people on the ground. As they grabbed it, the rope wrapped around a gas container, which broke and a fire then started.
People 'like balls of fire'
The witness estimated the balloon then “shot up 500 meters" (1,640 feet) and the pilot "jumped out as it was going up.”
“Eight people jumped and they were like balls of fire, some were alive when they landed, but then died on the ground, then the balloon went up and down again and swept along, then a second explosion occurred when another gas canister exploded,” he added.
Another eyewitness told al-Jazeera television that the balloon was “like a fireball when it went up.”
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson said that no Americans were among the victims, citing information from local police.
A health official in Luxor told NBC News that the victims include nine from Hong Kong, four from Japan, two from the U.K., two from France and two others who have not been identified.
Konny Matthews, assistant manager of Luxor's Al Moudira hotel, told Reuters by phone that she heard a boom around 7 a.m. (12 a.m. ET).
"It was a huge bang. It was a frightening bang, even though it was several kilometers away from the hotel," she added. "Some of my employees said that their homes were shaking."
A team of investigators was sent to Luxor, authorities said, and a moratorium was imposed on balloon flights.
The site of the accident has seen past crashes. In 2009, 16 tourists were injured when their balloon struck a cellphone 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 autocrat leader Hosni Mubarak and the political turmoil that followed and continues to this day.
Luxor's hotels are currently about 25 percent full in what is supposed to be the peak of the winter season.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.