Egypt balloon pilot jumped from gondola before fatal crash

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CAIRO — The pilot of a hot-air balloon that caught fire in mid-air and crashed, killing 19 foreign tourists, jumped from the gondola before shutting off the gas valve, Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Wael El-Maadawi said.

A Briton also managed to escape from the balloon by leaping to safety before it soared into the sky and exploded in a fireball that left many of the corpses charred in a tragic end to an early-morning tour over the famed pharaonic sites in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor early Tuesday, El-Maadawi said, according to the state-run Ahram Gate website.

The incident cast a pall over Egypt's tourism industry, which is struggling to rebound two years after the mass uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, and had officials stepping forward to deflect potential criticism about regulatory oversight both in the sector and across the nation.

El-Maadawi said the company that operated the flight, the pilot and the balloon itself were licensed and necessary inspections were up to date. In some of the first details to emerge about the incident, El-Maadawi said the pilot jumped from the balloon at an altitude of five meters (16.4 feet) after the fire broke out without have turned off the gas.

With the reduced weight, the balloon shot up again "with the passengers, while it was burning," he was cited as saying by Ahram Gate during a press conference late Tuesday.

The 19 people who died immediately include nine from Hong Kong, four from Japan and two each from Britain and France, according to Egyptian health officials. A third person from Britain later died in the hospital.

Amateur video footage of the balloon, aired by Al-Jazeera, showed it soaring higher in its final moments, smoke streaming out of the gondola before it deflated and plummeted toward the earth in a fireball. Egyptians on another balloon are heard commenting in horror and appealing to God.

El-Maadawi said Egypt had agreed to a request for a British investigator to monitor the inquiry into the crash.

The Civil Aviation Ministry expects to announce the results of the crash inquiry soon, according to a statement emailed from the spokesman for Prime Minister Hisham Qandil. The ministry welcomed the participation of foreign observers from the countries affected, according to the statement, which said Qandil was prepared to send free airline tickets to the families of the deceased and injured.

The incident increased angst in Egypt's tourism industry, particularly in Luxor, where tourists have been driven away in the past, particularly after a 1997 militant attack that left more than 50 tourists dead by a famed temple in the city.

The unrest gripping the nation, including flare-ups of violence that left more than 50 dead last month amid demonstrations against President Mohamed Mursi, have caused a drop in tourists, especially from Europe and North America, said Amr Abdel-Ghany, a pilot at Luxor-based Hod Hod Soliman, one of the local companies that offers hot-air balloon rides.

"The situation has deteriorated more with the Islamist government and the rise of Islamists issuing fanatical edicts against tourism and alcohol," Abdel-Ghany said by telephone. "I mean, who would want to visit a country with such a messed up-security and political situation?"