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Egyptians gather near the scene of a balloon crash outside al-Dhabaa village on Tuesday. / Hagag Salama, AP

A snagged landing cable on a hot air balloon sparked a fire, explosion and crash Tuesday that killed 19 foreign tourists near Egypt's ancient Nile River city of Luxor.

The tragedy also dealt another blow to Egypt's staggering, post-revolution tourism industry.

The deaths included French, British, Belgian, Hungarian, Japanese nationals and nine tourists from Hong Kong, Luxor Gov. Ezzat Saad told reporters. Three survivors - two British tourists and the Egyptian pilots - were taken to a local hospital, but one of the Britons later died of injuries.

Egypt's civil aviation minister, Wael el-Maadawi, suspended hot air balloon flights and flew to Luxor to lead the investigation into the crash.

The balloon, which was carrying 20 tourists and a pilot, was returning from an early-morning flight when a landing cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire erupted, according to an investigator with the state prosecutor's office. The fire set off an explosion of a gas canister and the balloon plunged about 1,000 feet to the ground, according to an Egyptian security official.

It crashed in a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, 320 miles south of Cairo.

The official and the investigator spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Mohammed Youssef, a pilot of another nearby balloon, told the London Guardian that the pilot and a British passenger jumped to safety when the fire erupted. That affected the balance of the balloon, sending more heat into its "envelope" and causing it to climb rapidly, he said.

"People were jumping out of the balloon from about the height of a seven-story building," Cherry Tohamy, an Egyptian who was in another balloon, told the BBC. Ambulances arrived 15 minutes later, she said.

British travel agency Thomas Cook UK said in a statement that three of its tour customers died in the Luxor accident and one customer remains in stable condition in an Egyptian hospital.

"This is a very tragic incident, but also very rare," the company said. "Thousands of people travel to Luxor each year with balloon rides being a popular way to see the sights."

Egypt's tourism industry has been hit hard by the 2011 uprising against Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and the ensuing political turmoil. From January through November 2012, 10.5 million tourists brought about $9.37 billion to Egypt, and the country's tourism minister said he expected the year's total tourist numbers to reach 11.5 million. In 2010, by contrast, 14.7 million tourists brought in an estimated $12 billion in revenue.

Tourism accounts for about 11% of Egypt's gross domestic product, and took a further hit in late January when thugs looted Cairo's historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel - an event chronicled on the hotel's Twitter feed. Elhamy El-Zayat, the head of Egypt's Federation of Tourism Chambers, told Ahram Online earlier this year that occupancy rates have reached a record-low rate of 15% in Cairo, 50% on the Red Sea coast and less than 5% in Luxor and Aswan.

The downturn has continued despite the fact that, as noted in a Feb. 6 U.S. State Department travel alert, "the security situation in most tourist centers, including Luxor, Aswan and Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el-Sheik, continues to be calm."

Luxor, also known as Thebes, is the northern anchor of commercial Nile cruises that extend 125 miles south to Aswan. Luxor, one of the country's key visitor sites, was hit with tragedy in 1997 when a terrorist strike at the Hatshepsut's Temple killed 62 people, including 58 tourists.

Sunrise balloon trips over the Karnak and Luxor temples and nearby Valley of the Kings, home to the tomb of King Tutenkhamun, are popular with visitors but have prompted safety concerns before.

In April 2009, 16 people were hurt when a balloon crashed after hitting a cellphone transmission tower near the banks of the Nile. After the accident, balloon flights over the Valley of the Kings were suspended for six months while safety measures were tightened up, reports the Guardian. At least four other non-fatal crashes that year involved tourists, including three on one day, and there were also crashes in 2007 and 2008, the Guardian added.

In a statement following a hot air balloon accident last year in New Zealand that killed 11, Carl Holden, an air safety expert said, "People have been flying hot air balloons safely, since 1783 to be exact, long before the Wright Brothers' first successful powered flight in 1903. Every year there are thousands of hot air balloon flights around the world."

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the use of hot air balloons in the USA. According to a preliminary search of the National Transportation Safety Board's aviation accident database, there have been 67 fatal incidents across America involving hot air balloons since 1964.

Contributing: Donna Leinwand Leger; the Associated Press



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Balloon tragedy may take further toll on Egypt tourism

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