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Too late to jump

Eddie Luk, Candy Chan and Agencies

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Nine Hong Kong tourists died in a ball of flames yesterday as a hot-air balloon exploded in Egypt, killing 19 people.

Witnesses said they had no time to jump as the balloon plunged 300 meters when it caught fire above the ancient temple city of Luxor.

It was carrying 21 tourists from Hong Kong, Britain, Japan, France and Hungary.

The pilot, who was badly burned, and one tourist survived by jumping out of the basket moments before it hit the ground. Both are in hospital.

The balloon was flying at 300 metres over Qurna, in Luxor's West Bank, when it caught fire before exploding.

Reuters' television footage showed emergency vehicles rushing to scorched earth where the balloon landed.

The balloon's operating company confirmed that a gas cylinder exploded.

Xinhua News Agency quoted a source in the Sky Cruise company as saying the cylinder exploded when the balloon reached a height of 300 to 400 meters.

Xinhua reported that the pressure in the balloon was too high just before the balloon caught fire. The hose attached to the gas tanks was cut and seconds later the explosion happened.

Luxor resident Ahmed saw the dramatic last moment of horror. "There was a terrifying sound when the balloon exploded," he said.

Another witness said: "Bodies engulfed in flames were falling out of the balloon."

The Hong Kong branch of the Swiss-based agency Kuoni said the nine were among a group of 15 Hong Kong travelers who had joined a tour to Egypt.

Kuoni's general mana
ger, Raymond Ng To-wing, said the victims were from three families - four men and five women aged 33 to 62.

Last night Kuoni gave the victims' surnames as Siu, 37, Ms Kwan, 37, Ms Tang, 59, Hos, 54 and 60, Ms Ho, 58, Ms Poon 33, Poon, 62, and Ms To, 58.

The group was on the fifth day of the tour when the nine joined the sunrise balloon ride, an optional tour on the 10-day itinerary. They left Hong Kong on February 22.

Luxor has now banned all balloon flights. The balloon exploded only after the pilot and several tourists had jumped from the burning gondola, according to Sky Cruise.

"There was a fire during the flight just before landing," Sky Cruise chairman Ahmed el-Sawi said. "Some of the passengers at this stage jumped out from the basket, followed by the pilot.

"The balloon gets lighter as it starts driving. So the passengers had no choice - either get burned or jump - but it was too late."

The Immigration Department said last night the Egyptian authorities had transported the bodies of the nine victims to Cairo.

Three officers from the department left for Egypt to help the families of the Hong Kong victims. They will go to Cairo first and meet with Chinese embassy staff to make arrangements for identifying the bodies.

Ten family members of the victims headed to Egypt with the immigration officials.

The officials said there was a fire and an explosion, causing the balloon to plunge several hundred meters before crashing into sugarcane fields west of Luxor, more than 500 kilometers south of Cairo, the Egyptian capital.

At a press conference, Ng said the nine Hong Kong travelers took the ride between 6 and 7am local time and the balloon caught fire at 7am.

"Our tour guide did not board the balloon but managed to report back that nine of our tour members were on board the balloon when the incident happened," Ng said.

"As far as we know, all bodies of the victims have been recovered. But we don't exactly know the cause of the explosion."

Ng said the balloon flight was an optional activity.

He said the travel agency's balloon rides on tours to Turkey and Australia have been suspended.

Three of the victims were covered by the travel agent's insurance and the others had bought insurance of their own. Ng also said the company's staff members headed for Egypt early this morning to arrange assistance.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he was saddened by the tragedy. He said the Hong Kong government would liaise with the Chinese embassy to help.

Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong chairman Michael Wu Siu-ying said hot-air ballooning at dawn is popular with tourists who go to Luxor to visit its pharaonic temples. Balloon rides that offer scenic aerial views of the Nile River and the ancient temples of Karnak and Hatshepsut are a popular tourist attraction in Luxor.

In 2009, 13 foreign tourists were injured when their hot-air balloon hit a phone mast and crashed at Luxor.


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