19 tourists die as hot-air balloon explodes in mid-air in Egypt
UP to 19 foreign tourists including three Britons had been killed when a hot air balloon exploded mid-air near the Egyptian city of Luxor today.
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 510km south of the capital Cairo.
The casualties are believed to include three British and French tourists, as well as other nationalities, a security official in the country said.
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.
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.
Tour operator Thomas Cook had earlier announced that two Britons had been killed and two more injured when the balloon plunged in flames to the ground in Luxor.
Shortly after 1pm the company said that one of the two injured Britons had since died. This took the total death toll to 19.
Witnesses described how they had seen tourists jumping from the balloon after it exploded at 1,000ft before crashing in fields.
Bodies of the dead were scattered across the fields around the remnants of the balloon.
The two Britons who initially survived were thought to have been in a critical condition when they were taken to hospital with the only other survivor - the Egyptian pilot.
Initially announcing the two British deaths, Thomas Cook UK and Europe chief executive Peter Fankhauser said: "What happened in Luxor this morning is a terrible tragedy and the thoughts of everyone in Thomas Cook are with our guests, their family and friends."
He said the company had a very experienced team in Luxor and that full support was being provided to the family and friends of those who had died.
Thomas Cook said it was working with local officials and a full investigation would be taking taking place.
"While this investigation is under way, Thomas Cook UK has temporarily suspended sales of hot air balloon rides in Egypt," the company added.
Cherry Tohamy, an Egyptian living in Kuwait who was on holiday in Luxor, was in another balloon which was landing when she heard an explosion and saw flames from a balloon above.
She told the BBC: "Our pilot told us that the balloon had hit a high pressure electrical cable and a cylinder on board exploded.
"People were jumping out of the balloon from about the height of a seven-storey building."
She said ambulances were at the scene within 15 minutes.
Other victims are thought to have come from Hong Kong, Japan and France.
The balloon came down in sugar cane fields. Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion before seeing plumes of smoke as the balloon caught fire.
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 6am and 8am.
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 were 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.
Thomas Cook was giving no more details of those killed or injured, although it was thought that one of the dead Britons was an English male.
The company has around 150 clients in the Luxor area at present. The company was not giving out any information about just when the four Britons involved had started their holidays or what their package involved.
It is thought the one surviving Briton has been flown to hospital in Cairo more than 300 miles away. It was reported that this survivor had 70% burns.
The two Britons who initially survived are believed to have been among nine in the balloon who had leapt to the ground as the fire began. The rest of the tourists are thought to have died in the explosion.
Konny Matthews, assistant manager of a Luxor's Al Moudira hotel, said she heard a boom around 7am local time.
She went on: "It was a huge bang. It was a frightening bang, even though it was several kilometres away from the hotel. Some of my employees said that their homes were shaking."
Later, a Foreign Office spokesman said: "We can confirm the tragic deaths of two British nationals and one British resident following a hot air balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt earlier today.
"The next of kin have been informed and our thoughts are with them and their families at this difficult time. We are providing them with consular assistance. We can also confirm that one other British national was involved and is in a stable condition.
"We have had consular officials in Luxor since early this morning who have been focused on providing consular assistance and supporting the Egyptian authorities. Our Ambassador to Egypt has met the injured British national and has offered our assistance."