The terror lasted less than two minutes: Smoke poured from a hot air balloon carrying sightseers on a sunrise flight over the ancient city of Luxor, it burst in a flash of flame and then plummeted about 1,000 feet to earth. A farmer watched helplessly as tourists trying to escape the blazing gondola leaped to their deaths.
Nineteen people were killed Tuesday in what appeared to be the deadliest hot air ballooning accident on record. A British tourist and the Egyptian pilot, who was badly burned, were the sole survivors.
The tragedy raised worries of another blow to the nation’s vital tourism industry, decimated by two years of unrest since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocratHosni Mubarak. The southern city of Luxor has been hit hard, with vacant hotel rooms and empty cruise ships.
It also prompted accusations that authorities have let safety standards decline amid the political turmoil and infighting, although civil aviation officials said the balloon had been inspected recently and that the pilot may have been to blame, jumping out rather than stopping the fire.
Authorities suspended hot air balloon flights, a popular tourist attraction here, while investigators determined the cause.
The balloon was carrying 20 tourists — from France, Britain, Belgium, Japan and Hong Kong — and an Egyptian pilot on a flight over Luxor, 510 kilometers (320 miles) south of Cairo, officials said. The flights provide spectacular views of the ancient Karnak and Luxor temples and the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of Tutankhamun and other pharaohs.