Nine Hong Kong tourists who died in a hot-air balloon fireball above the Egyptian city of Luxor yesterday were just seconds from landing when disaster struck.
A pilot who was only 100 metres from the ill-fated balloon in which 19 people perished, has told how it was just three metres off the ground when a gas fire broke out.
The balloon pilot described how in those last frantic seconds, the 20 passengers and the pilot on board the vessel, operated by a company called Sky Cruise, were only moments from landing after a breathtaking aerial tour of the capital of ancient Egypt when tragedy struck.
Nineteen tourists were killed. The Hongkongers among them were four men and five women, aged between 33 and 62. Their pilot and one man, believed to be from Hong Kong, are the only survivors.
The two survivors are believed to be a Briton tourist and the Egyptian pilot, who survived with 70 per cent burns, according to media reports .
In the last frantic seconds of the doomed flight, the 20 passengers watched in horror as their pilot jumped from the basket three metres from the ground, his body engulfed in flames.
"His face, arms and stomach were on fire," said Mohamed Yousses, 27, who was flying a balloon only 100 metres away and witnessed the tragic events as they unfolded. "He was trying to land but there was a gas leak which caused a fire in the basket."
Some news reports said the fire broke out as the balloon was flying at 300 metres, but Yousses, speaking to the South China Morning Post by telephone, said it caught fire closer to the ground.
He said a Chinese man in his mid-30s escaped moments after the pilot because he was standing closest to the edge of the basket.
The suspected gas leak then caused the balloon to shoot back up in the air, with the fire tearing through the thin material.
"After about 10 or 15 seconds, there was a gas explosion," Yousses said. "It all happened in less than a minute. I have never seen something like this happen before."
He said that after the balloon ascended he saw five or six people jump out of the basket to escape the flames, only to fall to their deaths.
Yousses said he landed his balloon about five minutes later and rushed to the scene. "The pilot is my friend so I went to the location, but he had gone to the hospital already," he said.
The Sky Cruise pilot suffered severe burns to 70 per cent of his body and is understood to have been transferred to a hospital in Cairo together with the other survivor.
Another pilot flying near the Sky Cruise balloon said weather conditions yesterday morning were ideal for flying.
"It was very calm conditions today, not like yesterday when it was windy and we couldn't fly," said the pilot. "I was about 150 metres away but I was concentrating on landing my balloon so I couldn't look behind, but when I did I saw smoke."
Photographer Christopher Michel was in another balloon when he heard a loud bang.
"We were approaching our landing, about three to four minutes, coming down in a remote field outside Luxor when I heard a loud explosion behind us and looked back and saw lots of smoke," he told Sky News.
"It wasn't immediately clear it was a balloon. Then we could see the reaction of the pilot on our balloon and he said this hadn't happened for a long time.
"He said to look forward. We landed and saw the emergency services. It's really, really tragic and everybody involved is in a lot of shock."
Warning: Viewer discretion is advised due to the graphic nature of this eyewitness video shot by a passenger onboard a nearby balloon at the time of the accident.
Last night, the Hong Kong victims' tour agency, Kuoni Travel, identified the nine only by their last names and ages, citing privacy concerns. It said they were a Mr Siu, aged 37, Ms Kwan, 37, Ms Tang, 59, Mr Ho, 60, Ms Ho, 58, Mr Ho, 54, Ms Poon, 33, Mr Poon, 62 and Ms To, 58.
Kuoni's general manager for sales and marketing, Raymond Ng, said his company had booked balloon rides with Sky Cruises for five years.
"We have a set of criteria when it comes to which hot-air balloon company we use. Most importantly, the company needs to be well-known, and has taken enough safety procedures," Ng said.
The balloon ride was an optional activity costing US$190 per person and the nine victims were part of a group of 15 Hongkongers on a 10-day HK$11,000 package tour which began last Friday. The six other tourists in the group as well as the tour guide did not join the balloon ride.
Staff members as well as four Immigration Department officers will accompany 10 family members to Luxor today.
A government spokesman said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would send a five-member team and a deputy director-general to Egypt.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said last night that the government did not have first-hand information on the incident yet, adding: "I feel very saddened. I send my deepest condolences to the [victims'] relatives."