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Britons among tourists killed in hot air balloon explosion

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A number of Britons were among 19 tourists killed after a hot air balloon exploded and crashed near the Egyptian city of Luxor on Tuesday.

Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion before seeing plumes of smoke as the balloon caught fire and plunged into a sugar cane field west of Luxor, which is 320 miles (510km) south of the capital Cairo.

The casualties are believed to include British and French tourists, as well as other nationalities, a security official in the country said.

A spokesman for air balloon tour operator Sky Cruise said there were two survivors, including the pilot, who is in a serious condition in hospital.

He said it was believed there were “about four” Britons on board.

Witness Christopher Michel described the carnage on Twitter, where he posted a series of photographs showing the balloons ahead of the flight.

“It was the balloon behind mine. I heard a loud explosion and saw smoke,” he said.

Hamdy Shabaan, operations manager at another operator, Sinbad hot air balloons, said the basket was on fire when it fell to the ground.

He said there would be no more flights today as they are restricted to take place between 6 and 8am.

Pictures from the scene showed one casualty in a body bag on the ground in front of an ambulance.

According to one report, the accident happened after a gas explosion at an altitude of 1,000ft.

Mr Michel, who previously made a balloon excursion with an English pilot, said the Egyptian operation “didn’t feel quite as professional” as that of his first voyage.

The US photographer was taking aerial photographs 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.”

He added: “It’s really, really tragic and everyone involved is in a lot of shock.”

An AP reporter at the crash site said he saw eight bodies being put into body bags and taken away.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are aware of the reports and we are making urgent inquiries with the authorities in Egypt.”

UK travel organisation Abta was seeking more information about the accident, as were the UK holiday companies who have people in Luxor at the moment.

One company with clients in the area is Thomas Cook. “We are getting in contact with our people in Luxor to get the very latest news,” said a Thomas Cook spokesman.

He went on: “Luxor is a popular spot for us and a number of tourists go on balloon trips.”

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 Stoke-on-Trent, 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 was 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.

Mr Michel told Sky News: “Once we sat the balloon down I probably heard sirens within five minutes. They continued arriving for the next hour.

“I don’t think people really knew what had occurred. I think their first assumption was it wasn’t a balloon, it was something else.

“It was really only when we saw that the pilot looked quite stern and he said he hadn’t had a tragedy in a long time ... that we knew something was up.”

In a later Twitter posting, he wrote: “Incredibly saddened by the loss of life today.”

A spokesman for UK travel organisation Abta said: “We are aware that there have been a number of injuries and fatalities including British nationals following an incident involving a hot air balloon trip in Luxor, Egypt, operated by a local company, Skycruise.

“It is understood that at least 20 people were on board the flight, although it has not yet been confirmed how many of these are British nationals.

“We are working with our members, the Foreign Office and the Egyptian authorities to ascertain more details about the incident. We will issue further information once it becomes available.”

Specialist tour operator Discover Egypt said none of its holidaymakers was involved.

A company spokesman added: “As a precautionary measure, Discover Egypt will not be offering its clients any hot air balloon excursions until a full and thorough investigation of today’s incident has been made.”

 

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